Every physician is public and has an audience


An excerpt from The Public Physician — Practical Wisdom for Life in a Connected, Always-On World.

What you do, where you live, and what you intentionally create as a physician in public should be determined by what you want to accomplish. What are you trying to get done?

Perhaps you want to …

  • build a strong public presence to keep your practice competitive in your community;
  • draw visibility to a non-profit focused on health reform;
  • draw public attention to research going on in your lab;
  • become a more visible figure in vaccine awareness;
  • build a business as a professional speaker; or
  • use social tools to build a personal learning network.

In each of these cases, the approach you take to laying down your footprint might be very different and will require you to think about your audience.

If you are a public physician, you have an audience. The presence of an audience, by nature, defines the public physician. This is essentially who you are public for.  They’re why you’re there and why you create. And they’re hopefully why you’re reading this book.

Doctors aren’t used to having an audience outside the clinic. They have never seen themselves as producers or communicators of anything beyond the one-on-ones they share with patients

Some doctors may see the concept of an audience as something of a threat.  Instead, we need to think about building audience as a means of impacting change and exerting influence. In the digital age, an audience represents one of the most important assets you can have. Having an audience implies that there are people who trust you.

Your audience may consist of twenty-five people, or it may consist of millions. No matter how strange, narrow, or fringe your message may be, there will be someone on the planet who’s interested in hearing what you have to say. And assuming you have something good to say and you say it with any level of consistency or clarity,  you will attract people who find your content interesting.

Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Lives for the Better, has suggested that it used to be that audiences were only relevant when they were massive. It was those with mass appeal who would draw the attention of the media who, in turn, profited from the audience. In other words, you had to have a large audience in order to ever get the attention of the people in control of the means of disseminating information. But that has changed.

Many still think in these mass media terms, but the right audience of just a few can still change the world. A physician or practitioner with even the smallest niche can create a following that allows ideas to spread.

Beyond numbers, the type of audience you seek to draw should vary depending on what you want to accomplish.

  • If you want to build a medical practice, then you want to grab the attention and trust of patients within a relatively local reach.
  • If you have a non-profit that centers on health reform, then you want to attract a national public audience, as well as the ears of policy makers, the mainstream media, and perhaps other non-profits with similar ideas.
  • If you are growing a career as a pediatrician author, then you want to establish a national or global audience of young mothers.
  • If you have a blog that centers on gadgets, apps, and mobile medical devices for doctors, then your audience is, of course, doctors. Or, more specifically, doctors who love shiny, new gadgets. But don’t forget other people who make or are interested in tech. They can be huge allies in getting your message where it needs to go.
  • If you have a lab doing interesting research on Alzheimer’s disease, then you probably want to attract organizations interested in degenerative neurological diseases, as well as potentially the mainstream media. There may be advocacy groups or people caring for loved ones with dementia.

Knowing your audience is the first step to knowing what you need to produce in order to draw that audience. If you don’t know exactly everyone you should be speaking to, don’t worry. You can build as you go.

How to build an audience: Make something as unique as you

In medicine we have a hard time not walking in lockstep with the next guy.  It’s easy, and most importantly, it’s safe. It’s how we’re wired as doctors.

It’s no different in the public space. We see one orthopedic surgeon sitting in front of a camera talking about ACL tears, and so we all sit in front of a camera and talk about ACL tears. You can do it but it’s less likely to stick because there are already lots of good clips out there.

But maybe there’s another way to talk about the same subject.

Here’s how you can mix it up: Think about the way you talk about ACL tears.

  • Medium. Use a different medium beyond video.
  • Format. Share a story, use Sketchnotes, or rap (don’t laugh—take a look at ZDoggMD).
  • Angle. Look at describing or explaining ACL tears in a new way or in a new place.
  • Niche. Discuss ACL tears for a unique category of patients.
  • Voice.  Think about how you sound to those who see, read, or listen to your work and talk about ACL tears in a way that is unique only to you.

More doctors are creating content, and basic health information is a dime a dozen. When everyone’s talking this much, it’s hard to hear. If you want to stand out or be visible, you need to either deliver something that’s unique and offers value or serve up less-than-unique information in a new way.

Bryan Vartabedian is a pediatric gastroenteriologist who blogs at 33 Charts. He is the author of The Public Physician — Practical Wisdom for Life in a Connected, Always-On World.

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