I started sharing my journey through medicine on Instagram about four years ago after I failed the musculoskeletal block during my first year of medical school. I felt alone in my struggles and didn’t want anyone else to feel that way. So I started talking about it openly. It quickly became a place to nurture my creative self and build community. And even though a lot has changed in how I use the platform over the years, I’m still very protective of the space.
Over the past few months there has been criticism of the medical Instagram community for participating in the influencer culture, by collaborating frequently with brands and the performative nature of sharing their reflections through their journey, some going as far to call into question the ethics of it all.
While we do need to have conversations around professionalism and social media, I believe the pros of the medical Instagram community greatly outweigh the cons. Here are some of what I believe to be the many positive aspects of Instagram’s medical community:
1. My friend Sara made the great point that it’s humanizing physicians and giving people insight into the rigor of the process of becoming a physician, which helps rebuild trust with the public. A few months ago, I shared a silly story about how when you’re on rotations as a medical student, you go see the patient first and then share your findings with your supervising physician.
Often, they end up asking the same questions when you go back into the patient’s room together. They do this because they need to confirm your findings, but sometimes the patients looked at me like “didn’t I just tell you all this?” And I’d just stand there trying to apologize with my eyes. A follower responded thanking me for sharing that because she often wondered why and was frustrated that she was being asked the same questions so many times whenever she went to the doctor’s and now understood that it wasn’t because the med student was simply not telling the doctor what she told them. That’s just one example of how a silly story of mine ended up demystifying a doctor’s appointment, and there is potential for so much more.
2. It’s centering women in medicine. Most of the influencers in the medical Instagram community are women. And while we’ve made progress as a field in facing patriarchal norms, we still have a long way to go before we’ve reached equity within the field and changed society’s idea on who “looks” like a doctor.
I’ve been asked on many occasions how my male partner feels about me being “ahead” of him in med school. If I’m studying to be a nurse when I’ve shared that I’m in medical school — none of my male colleagues have gotten this response while the majority of my female ones have. Simply seeing women, especially women of color, donning white coats and scrubs is an important and powerful image that, I’m sure, is inspiring the next generation of physicians.
3. There are opportunities for mentorship. This is especially helpful for folks who are the first in their families to pursue higher formal education. Those of us who have elders and generations before us who have done so have access to a lot of knowledge about the process that we take for granted. Social media is largely accessible, and the Instagram medical community is constantly sharing a wealth of knowledge on mastering premed and med school courses, application processes, etc. that many may not have had access to otherwise. Often, people make personal connections, and the mentorship continues offline.
4. It’s a space for us to nurture our creative selves. The journey through medicine is a rigorous one, and we often have limited time to pursue things that bring us joy throughout it. When engaging on Instagram, we’re already writing, photographing and often also using the space to be accountable around and share other means of achieving wellness — poetry, fitness, spoken word, style and so much more.
5. It’s a potential space for advocacy surrounding public health issues like gun violence, flu shots, organ donation. In addition to doing sponsored posts and sharing about their journeys through medicine, folks are also talking about important social issues. This challenges the notion that medicine is or should be apolitical. When we have so many folks in the current and past administrations at federal and state levels making poor decisions on policies affecting health care, it becomes even more important that we stay informed and use our platforms to talk about these issues. I’m hoping to see more and more of this!
6. The business acumen and entrepreneurship skills one gains from collaborating with brands can later be translated to medical spaces and creating systems that work better for ourselves as providers and our patients in a time when physicians are losing more and more autonomy. Through these collaborations, we learn to negotiate and value our time. All this will serve us throughout our careers, whether we end up in academia or in private practice.
7. It provides motivation and inspiration on this long and often brutal journey. If you go through pretty much any post on a medical Instagrammer’s profile, you’ll see that many of the comments are folks thanking them for putting into words what they were feeling but having difficult articulating themselves. Every “Thank you. This is exactly what I needed to read today!” is one person who feels less alone in this often-isolating journey.
8. Lastly, as a future psychiatrist, it should be no surprise that this is my favorite aspect of the space: normalizing mental health and failures. Simply having conversations surrounding mental health and illness is a very radical act because, ironically, there is often no room for people in medicine to address their struggles with health or otherwise, but these conversations continue to be a big part of what most of us are doing on the platform.
Ads on Instagram are an integral means of advertisement for many brands, and I’m glad that the medical community is responsibly participating. There are, of course, conversations that need to happen around how to protect professionalism and continue to prioritize wellness of patients in how we navigate this relatively new space but, I’m excited to see how we’ll use this tool.
Anum Iqbal is a medical student who blogs at a healer’s heart.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com