Social media influencers are gaining more traction in several aspects of the health world.

From using their platform as a tool to fight misinformation, to partnering with pharma companies on campaigns, to even being courted by Harvard scientists who want to leverage their power on their large audiences, influencers are in demand.

How they can leverage this interest and maximize the extent of their impact is one that Austin Lee Chiang, a gastroenterologist and a chief medical officer of endoscopy at medical device company Medtr​​onic, is trying to figure out. 

Over the past few years, Chiang has made sense of his role as both physician and influencer — or rather, as he prefers to be called, a “creator.” 

At the recent HLTH 2023 conference in Las Vegas, Chiang joined several other healthcare influencers and social media platforms like YouTube to discuss the burgeoning power of healthcare professional influencers.

MM+M spoke with Chiang after one of his panels to learn more about the evolving role of the physician influencer.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

MM+M: How does it feel being at HLTH this year?

Chiang: I’m so excited to be here. All aspects of health tech are here, and the scale of the conference keeps growing year after year. 

Just the location of it — being at the Las Vegas Convention Center — is an illustration of that. I love coming to this conference because there’s an array of startups and established companies, consumer facing companies, B2B type companies and a lot of movers and shakers.

MM+M: You spoke on a panel with several other healthcare influencers earlier; why is it important to talk about being a creator at a conference like this?

Chiang: [Healthcare influencers] have been around for a while. However, there’s more attention now than before. Year after year, I expect it to continue growing. 

The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed this whole conversation. People started recognizing how important social media was when it comes to influencing public opinion about healthcare, public perception of health professionals and ultimately health outcomes, too.

It’s good to leverage social media to try to influence healthcare in a lot of different ways. Ultimately, consumers and patients are spending a significant amount of time on social media — about two and a half hours a day. 

It’s a huge opportunity to get information out there, especially accurate information, because there’s a lot of bad information as well. Everyone [at HLTH] is focused on how to get more people to access that good health information. Social media is a great way that’s already built in to do that.

MM+M: Given the amount of misinformation on a platform like TikTok, how do you see your role as a physician influencer, when it comes to teaching audiences how to differentiate between misinformed content and accurate content?

Chiang: It’s so important. Many of us [doctors] have seen people come into the hospital because of things they heard online or saw on the news that isn’t accurate. If we’re not on social media, then the entire conversation is dominated by [influencers] who don’t have the right credentials.

However, the way that we go through medical education and training nowadays, [social media literacy] is not taught to doctors. Many of us have had to figure out how to do this through trial and error. Especially with the social media platforms rolling out new features all the time, it can be complex and daunting.

Ultimately, we [as physicians and HCPs] do have to be on there because otherwise there’s just going to be other people taking advantage of these platforms and talking about things they probably shouldn’t be talking about.

MM+M: You’ve done some work to initiate that type of training on a broader scale and elevate social media into being more of an academic focus for med students and doctors. In your panel, you mentioned your work with the Association for Healthcare Social Media, can you talk about that?

Chiang: I no longer lead the organization, but the Association for Healthcare Social Media was born out of this concern that we needed more accurate voices on social media. 

We worked with some of the social media platforms directly, including LinkedIn. We tried to educate one another on how to use social media not only to effectively reach more people, but also to responsibly do so, because there are a lot of ways that things can go wrong and people can get in trouble.

We also gave out some funding for social media research just to try to advance this field in a way that was seen as legitimate by our academic peers, because we wanted to encourage those thought leaders to also get on social media themselves, to talk about social media use with their trainees, and in a way that wasn’t judgmental. We’re seeing that the future involves meeting patients and trainees where they’re at, which is on social media.

MM+M: Do you think this idea of educating med students and HCPs about communicating on social media will gain traction with time or is there still a ways to go?

Chiang: There’s a lot more work to be done. I’m seeing some changes — definitely training programs are paying more attention. The challenge is that there are few of us who are active on multiple social media platforms and can speak to the different uses of social media.

It also depends on what people’s goals are. 

Some people are only looking to use social media to network or talk to other colleagues and to learn themselves, versus some who are maybe more public-facing and trying to educate the masses. Depending on what people want to do with their social media presence, there may be different ways of going about it. Unfortunately, there are not that many people who I think are doing it all, so to speak.

MM+M: As you discussed in the panel, these videos do have a visible impact on patients. How do you design your videos to create that impact and change how patients view their health or take their health into their own hands?

Chiang: It’s all about packaging the information in a way that’s engaging and appealing. My whole thing about social media is I have always thought about how social media platforms operate. 

The platforms want to retain people’s attention for as long as possible. For the creator, it’s also about how we create content that serves that purpose. How am I able to maintain someone’s attention past the first few seconds? Encourage people to watch it all the way through? To watch it again, save it and share it?

That also involves good audio and video quality; things that we might not think about necessarily. Of course, how do we distill a complex concept into something simple. I try to sometimes take advantage of social media trends and find a way to tie it back to certain health topics to just get a message across.

For me, I want to go beyond just communicating with people who are expecting that kind of information or who have some sort of background in health. I want to reach people who don’t even know about that information yet. The only way I think to do that on social media is to do it in a fun, entertaining way that still has a message embedded in it.

MM+M: How do you come up with your content ideas and TikTok videos?

Chiang: Compared to some other creators, I don’t post when I don’t feel like there’s something for me to say. I feel like if I force it, it doesn’t come off as genuine. I wait until I feel like, ‘OK, there’s something that I feel passionate about talking about or that I’m seeing or that I can relate to.’ There’s so much to draw upon in healthcare.

MM+M: What are you most excited about here at HLTH and doing here? Are you going to make any TikToks?

Chiang: We’ll see. I’m going to try. My schedule’s a little packed, but I’ve already run into a couple of old friends. Ultimately, the benefit of an in-person conference and what we lack with the virtual setting for the past few years is being able to connect in person again. 

I’m definitely looking forward to that. This is a forward-thinking event, so it’s cool to get to see what people are working on, what maybe the next couple of years of healthcare might look like. It’s always exciting.

Editor’s note: Chiang posted a TikTok from HLTH after we spoke, featuring him and fellow healthcare influencer Dr. Mike wearing different-colored suits so people could tell them apart.