It seems these days that there is no shortage of physicians out there, in the public interfacing with anyone with open ears. Notable “doctor/authors” such as Dr. Oliver Sacks, Dr. Louise Aronson and Dr. Danielle Ofri have used fiction and nonfiction writing as a way to communicate with the public.

There are those who interface with the public through mainstream media. Dr. Oz (The Dr. Oz Show), Dr. Phil (who isn’t even a medical doctor) and Dr. Sanjay Gupta (CNN) primarily use TV to reach the masses. Physicians such as Dr. Damania (ZDoggMD), Dr. Vartabedian (33charts) and Dr. Larry Chu (founder of MedX) have chosen to interface with the public primarily through newer social media communication methods such as blogs, podcasts and vodcasts. Social media is often the platform for our own FOAMed movement in Emergency Medicine with Dr. Cadogan (Life in the Fast Lane), Dr. Weingart (EMCrit), and Dr. Michelle Lin (ALiEM) emerging as early leaders.

Starting a blog or podcast is often the easy part. Most physicians with public personalities have built a brand, communicating with specific audiences on topics they find academically or socially interesting. Crafting that public physician niche while maintaining both professional integrity and personal privacy is something we wanted to know more about. Therefore, we reached out to Dr. Louise Aronson to help understand a bit more about her public physician journey.

For some background, Dr. Louise Aronson is a geriatrician at University of California, San Francisco and serves as Chief of Geriatric Education. On her personal website she describes herself as a “doctor and a writer – or maybe a writer and a doctor”. She is also very active on twitter using @louisearonson. She is the writer of a beautiful collection of medical short stories, “A History of Present Illness” and participated in the ALiEM Bookclub when it came time to discuss her book.

What is your definition of a Public Physician?
A physician who engages with the public in one or multiple ways through speaking, writing, social media and other channels. The public physician works beyond the clinic and hospital in the public sphere to educate, advocate and learn from large groups of people who are not and usually will never be his or her patients.

What are pitfalls that doctors can avoid in the pursuit of becoming a Public Physician?
Public Physicianhood is more successful if people follow a few simple rules:

  1. Ensure all your comments are accurate, generous and professional.
  2. Have a primary focus or purpose that seeks to improve health or health care, not you, your income or reputation.
  3. Be clear about who you are speaking for (yourself, your specialty, your institution, etc.) and even more clear about who you are NOT speaking for.
  4. Make all criticism constructive and collaborative, rather than insulting, myopic or vituperative.

What are unique challenges to becoming a Public Physician?
Your word and ideas may endure and circulate in ways you didn’t imagine, so you need to be sure they represent you well and move forward your primary focus or purpose (see #2 above!). No matter how fair and generous you try to be, you will sometimes incur criticism or attacks by those who don’t like or understand your message. That can hurt and be frustrating, and the very best responses are non-response or an excess of generosity and open-mindedness, aka “the high road”.

Should doctors strive to become Public Physicians?
In this era of mass communication, social media, online access by anyone anywhere, etc., most physicians will become public to some extent. As a result, striving to understand what that means and be public in a way that is consistent with who you are and what you believe in is likely to become part of the physician’s core communication skills set.

Not everyone needs to have this be a major part of their career, though more and more of us are, and I imagine the trend will continue to increase for some time. It’s an opportunity that is unique so far in human history, and it is transforming medicine, and so probably a good idea to have at least some basic level of competence.

What role does a Public Physician play in the relationship with individual patients, to society, and to the profession of medicine?
I think it’s very important to turn off the public physician when seeing individual patients. One’s focus needs to be exclusively on them and their well being. That is the best way to serve not only the person as patient before you but also society and our profession.