Improving Medical Communication through Social Media

Thought LeadersDr. Benjamin SchmidtGastrointestinal (GI) Doctor

News-Medical interviews Dr. Benjamin Schmidt about using social media to highlight different perspectives in the medical community and improve communication between patients and doctors.

Please could you introduce yourself and tell us what inspired your career in medicine?

My name is Benjamin Schmidt and I am a GI fellow, currently in St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States. I was first trained in general internal medicine and now I am doing a fellowship in gastroenterology.

I was inspired to join the medical profession initially due to my father, who is a physician. He is an anesthesiologist in the same city where I am. I was able to learn a bit about the medical profession at a very young age, working in his office as someone who would just check vitals and basic things like that.

That got me interested in being able to learn more about the profession, and I volunteered outside of his area to make sure that I enjoyed other aspects of medicine. I also enjoyed learning about the sciences throughout high school and college. That is what pursued me to move in that direction.

With regards to gastroenterology specifically, it is an area that I think is really interesting. It involves a lot of different organs ranging from the liver to the pancreas, intestines, stomach and esophagus. I really enjoyed working with the doctors in that field throughout my medical training and it made me realize that it was the field I wanted to pursue.

On TikTok, you currently have over 420,000 followers and over 10 million likes. Why did you choose to start sharing insights into your life as a gastrointestinal doctor and what do you hope to achieve from doing this?

It has been a crazy journey and it is something that I did not expect to be this successful with when I first started out. I have always enjoyed making videos in general, since I was a middle schooler.

I was in middle school when YouTube started, so I made a lot of silly videos at that time. With that kind of hobby in mind, I had the idea of starting to fuse my profession with my hobby when TikTok started getting big. I saw a lot of other creators that were medical. 

What I thought I might have to offer was making videos highlighting the different perspectives in the medical community. When I say that, I mean for example doctors and patients not understanding each other either literally or figuratively, but then also different perspectives within the healthcare community.

I think different professions within healthcare can have little disagreements or their own way of doing things or thinking about things. That could be doctors versus nurses, or divisions between less well-known subtypes, for example, respiratory therapists, speech therapists or pharmacists.

Even within being a doctor, there are a lot of different specialties that think about things in different ways. There are cardiologists, nephrologists, pulmonologists, etcetera. I thought there was a lot of humor in that, but also believed education was needed to highlight how different people think about different aspects of medicine. It seemed like an obvious kind of niche that was not necessarily being explored in the same way that a lot of other areas were. It allowed a little bit of humor whilst helping people learn about doctors and how they operate.

I think humanizing doctors is something that came out of that as well. People can see doctors are just normal people that want to have fun. They sometimes make mistakes. They sometimes do not know what they are doing, but I think that makes them more appealing, hopefully, as opposed to less appealing.

Intern Year Day 1: Expectation vs Reality

We are currently living in a digital age, where millions of people worldwide are using social media to communicate daily. What impact has social media had on the share of medical information?

I think it has had a massive impact in that it is so much easier to share information. That can be good or bad because it is so easy for anyone to share information. I think that can be great for a lot of different reasons. For example, for people who do not have access to the information.

Maybe you live in a small town that does not have specialist doctors. There are cities that do not have a GI doctor, like me, and there are a lot of specialties even more narrow than mine, for example, radiation oncology. Someone could learn that particular specialties even exist, and this might be able to benefit them. In another sense, people that are interested in medicine but have not found a specific specialty within medicine that is interesting for them can find this.

There are a lot of people that do not like going to the doctor and social media allows doctors to reach people on a different scale. Obviously I am passionate about educating people and trying to get people well, but I can only see so many patients in the clinic on a given day. I can literally reach millions of people if a video that I make goes viral.

Being able to reach so many people so quickly is such a valuable tool for awareness. For instance, this month in the United States is colorectal cancer awareness month. I have made several videos about that. People who might not have seen a doctor for five years are now potentially seeing my silly little video and its little kernel of education, saying, "Hey, you should get screened for colon cancer. It is something that could save your life."

Then, of course, there is the negative side of things, where people who either are not medical professionals or have questionable ethics or motives can also spread information, whether it is true or not, very easily. It can be hard to make that distinction. I sometimes address that on my channel as well.

The ongoing COVID 19 pandemic has highlighted the detrimental effects misinformation can have globally. What impact can the spread of medical misinformation have and how are you using your platform to share accurate and reliable information? And why is that so important?

Doctors have all seen that this misinformation can have a powerful effect. When we see patients in the GI clinic that have Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, it is really important for them to get the COVID 19 vaccine. I have had a lot of conversations with people, noting their hesitations that are clearly rooted mainly in these little sound bites that are not necessarily based on fact or specific studies, but clearly something they have heard either on TV or on social media. It can be very hard to dispel these myths because they have just heard them over and over again.

I think it is interesting because there are a lot of more concerning things, that we recommend to people on a daily basis that they have no problem with. For example, the treatments for Crohn's and ulcerative colitis can sometimes have a lot of negative side effects because they suppress your immune system to help you fight that disease. But we rarely get people with the same level of concern about those potentially risky treatments, as opposed to this COVID vaccine, which is very benign and very safe. That is just because of medical misinformation that has been spread.

I think for me, a big part of what I try to do is take these myths saying that the COVID 19 vaccine is dangerous or that you should not get it, and actually go point by point and explain why that is not true, giving concrete examples. I think that people are going to be able to respond to this, as opposed to just me sitting there, lecturing about the scientific studies and the benefits of it. I think having a concrete example of why this fact that a lot of people are talking about is wrong works well.

Even though there is a lot of misinformation, I have a good platform to be able to try to combat it.

In many of your TikTok videos, you also demonstrate the complexity of the language commonly used by doctors when talking to patients. How important is effective communication when talking to patients?

Communication is everything when you are talking to patients, and I think that is something that luckily is being recognized by the medical community and is now reflected in medical education.

You can be the smartest doctor in the world, but if you cannot convey to your patient what is going on with them, or explain the treatment or lifestyle change that they need, it does not matter at all. If the patient does not come away from that visit understanding what is going on, they might as well have not gone to the doctor in the first place.

There are a lot of examples of this, unfortunately, that you see throughout your medical training as a medical student, then resident, then fellow. There are a lot of cases where doctors can think that they are having a good impact, but later realize that the patient did not understand a single thing.

That could be a literal issue if they do not speak the language very well, or more commonly an issue with the language that is being used - the types of words and the medical jargon. Younger doctors are getting better at this precisely because the curriculums are changing and emphasizing things like teach-back education, making sure that your patient can explain back to you what you said to them because if they are just smiling and nodding, it can be hard to know. It goes a very long way, making sure that people think about how they are giving their medical advice.

Hopefully, this is all also encouraging patients to realize that it is okay to ask their doctor a follow-up question too. In the old way of thinking, the doctor says something and you just smile say thank you then go about your day. But if you do not understand, it is important for you to take ownership of your health a bit as well and say, "I don't know what that word means that you just said," or, "When you say I need a low sodium diet, what does that mean? How do I do that?” That is really important too.

Social media and medicine

Social media and medicine. Image Credit: Natali _ Mis/Shutterstock.com

You often use humor to convey quite difficult messages. Why did you choose to incorporate humor into your videos, and how does this help to educate people in various medical issues and terminologies?

Humor is an incredibly powerful tool because everyone loves to laugh. It invites people in. People enjoy the videos a lot more if they have a funny angle to them. I think that they are going to be more likely to watch the entire video, share it, and appreciate it if it has some added level of entertainment beyond just being a lecture.

It is vital that you can find a level of connection with patients. Using humor, you can find a scenario that patients can relate to and I think it connects doctors and patients a lot better than using the more traditional teaching technique of lecturing.

Many people find visiting the doctors or booking an appointment quite intimidating. How are you using your channel to show a more approachable side to doctors, and how would this in turn help to better connect with patients and ultimately improve their quality of care?

A big theme of my channel and videos is humanizing doctors and making sure that people see doctors as just another profession. Doctors are like accountants or lawyers or journalists. They are people that are doing a job. They want to do it as well as they can, but they are humans still. They do not always know the exact answer.

Medicine is a lot more complicated than I think a lot of people appreciate, and doctors make mistakes and sometimes are not sure what to do. I think the younger generation takes comfort in knowing that these are not just stiff figures dispelling medical facts and just going about their day. It is someone who wants to work with you, someone who wants to try to get you better, and wants your input.

It is important for patients to take some ownership of their healthcare too. If they do not understand, they need to chime in. If a medicine is too expensive for them, or if they have side effects that are keeping them from taking that medicine, they need to bring that up to the doctor.

I have done videos where I talk about being on-call and receiving a call where someone asked me what to do about a patient with abdominal pain. I talk about my thought process and the things that I am worried about and not worried about in that situation, as well as the things that I am going to consider doing next. I think that if people have a window into that thought process, they will realize that doctors are just like me, and then it will seem much less intimidating, hopefully.

On your channel, you also highlight how demanding a career working in medicine is. What do you believe to be some of the biggest misconceptions around work in healthcare, and how are you trying to challenge them?

I think there are definitely a few misconceptions. I think one that has already been dispelled a bit, even without my channel, is that people are starting to understand how demanding being a doctor is and how many hours doctors have to work. It is also demanding in terms of the difficult information we deal with on a daily basis, for example telling someone they have cancer or telling a loved one that their father passed away.

Something that I think is often not appreciated by people, and even me before I joined the medical profession, is just how much gray area there is in medicine as opposed to black and white.

I assumed, when I was joining medical school, that a patient would give me a set of symptoms and their vital signs, and I would be able to say, "Oh, well they have pneumonia," or, "Oh, they have bladder cancer," and be able to be clear and know the diagnosis. But there is a lot of nuance to it. Doctors do not always know exactly what to do, but they learn the tools and tests needed to tease out that situation. It is with our expertise that we can get the best answer possible.

There are a lot of people I interact with using my social media videos who have chronic diseases and have had a long journey to diagnosis. For example, they have seen three or four doctors who have either told them there is nothing wrong with them or that the wrong thing is wrong with them.

People often, and rightfully so, are frustrated by this. But sometimes they think that it is because doctors do not care or that doctors do not want to help. I think it is usually because doctors are trying to help, but it is challenging in many cases to find a proper diagnosis for people if they have something beyond the most simple diagnoses of the flu or high blood pressure.

Since the rise of TikTok, you have become an internationally recognized medical expert. What would you say is your proudest achievement?

It is surreal how much has changed in only a year and a half. I have grown my channel so much and reached so much success. I have hit a lot of achievements and a lot of goals. I think, on the selfish side of things, some of my proudest moments have been being recognized in public, when I am not even in scrubs or a white coat. For example, a waiter at a restaurant recognized me and said that he loved my videos. He enjoyed them and he got a lot of entertainment out of them. That was cool.

On a more serious and significant level, I have been proud of the personal messages that I have received from patients who have been able to take so much away from my videos. For example, people have told me that they have decided to pursue medical school based on watching my videos, or that they have decided to seek another medical opinion because they have chronic abdominal pain and were told that there is nothing that can be done about it. Based on my videos, they have decided to get another doctor's opinion.

People have told me that, based on watching my videos, they have decided to get the COVID vaccine, or that they had one opinion and then watched my videos and learned that there are other ways to think about it.

I think that is ultimately what I am trying to do. I can reach and hopefully have an impact on so many more people with social media than if I was simply seeing patients in a clinic every single day. It makes me the proudest when that comes to fruition and I am able to make an impact on people's career trajectories and health trajectories, internationally in some cases.

Gastrointestinal Doctor

Image Credit: sdecoret/Shutterstock.com

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to follow in your footsteps?

I think it can be very difficult. From the perspective of a GI doctor, it is a very long road of training and it is something where if you are passionate about it, you need to commit to it and recognize that it is going to be difficult. It is going to be a long road that you are going to have struggles with. You are not always going to succeed the first time, but if it is something that you really want to do, then you put in the hours and you will get there.

I think that applies in some ways to being successful on social media as well. If you are trying to be successful on social media, you need to find something that you are passionate about, that motivates you, and that you want to share with the world. I think that has got to be your starting point, as opposed to just wanting to go viral and be famous, because otherwise you are going to get discouraged quickly - it is difficult to go viral.

I think you have to enjoy making videos that get 10 views and just be proud of what you have produced. If you continue producing those, eventually you will have some level of success, but you have got to make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons.

Where can readers find more information?

You can find out more information about me on my website (DocSchmidt.me).

My Instagram handle is @DocSchmidtIG, my Tiktok handle is @DocSchmidt and my YouTube channel is https://youtube.com/c/DocSchmidtYT

About Dr. Benjamin Schmidt

Benjamin Schmidt is a physician based in St. Louis, MO. He is board certified in internal medicine and is currently completing a gastroenterology fellowship. He creates social media videos under the username Doc Schmidt with the goal of educating and entertaining both healthcare workers and patients.Dr. Benjamin Schmidt

His videos have amassed hundreds of millions of views and have been featured in both local and national news stories. He has gained over 900k followers across his social media platforms along the way.

Emily Henderson

Written by

Emily Henderson

During her time at AZoNetwork, Emily has interviewed over 300 leading experts in all areas of science and healthcare including the World Health Organization and the United Nations. She loves being at the forefront of exciting new research and sharing science stories with thought leaders all over the world.

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