Bryan Vartabedian, also known as @doctor_V is one of the sharpest thinkers on the crossroads of medicine and social media. His blog – 33 charts – is inspiring, ground breaking and thought provoking all at the same time. Through his Twitter presence, whith more than 5,800 followers, Bryan demonstrates that medical authority does not necessarily have to derive from peer reviewed publications. In this interview, he shares some of his wisdom with the MedCrunch community. Enjoy!
MedCrunch: How did you get started on blogging?
Bryan: In 2006 I was writing a book on irritable babies. At the time, it was suggested that if you were an author, you had to have a blog. And so I started my first blog “Parenting Solved” with the selfish intent of selling books. I remember when the blog was just a few months old, Nestlé and Gerber merged and I published a short piece on the future of baby food. I didn’t think much of it but the post was picked up by one of the major financial feeds in Europe and my traffic skyrocketed. Industry professionals called and wanted to talk. I was shocked. It was then that I realized the power of this platform. It was then that I realized this was more than a gimmick for selling books. But I ultimately became a bit burned out writing for parents. In 2009 I began to see more doctors coming into the social media space and so I thought this might be an interesting topic for a blog. And that’s when I started my blog 33 charts. My goal was to create some dialogue around the issues that doctors were facing in social media.
MedCrunch: Where do you want to take 33 charts?
Bryan: That’s a good question since I blog strictly out of passion at this point. Just like MedCrunch, I haven’t been obsessed with traffic – I don’t have a publishing model necessarily. I am reaching a point where I am trying to figure out social media and digital communication might fit with my academic career. So I really don’t have a good answer for that; It’s a subject for internal debate.
MedCrunch: How important is a clinical background for bloggers in our field you think?
Bryan: For doctors who think and write about social media I think it offers a lot of credibility when you actually work as a physician. I’m always suspicious of doctors who blog about healthcare, who haven’t had some experience seeing patients. You can do it but I think this is more difficult.
MedCrunch: Are you involved in the healthcare startup scene at all?
Bryan: I have received calls from health care/social startups looking for medical leadership. Right now I work in an academic division that supports my exploration of this area so I have to say that I’m pretty happy. However, I’m always looking at opportunities to grow.
MedCrunch: In your opinion, what makes a good writer? How much is hard work, how much is talent and what do you do to become even better at writing?
Bryan: Well, that’s a tough question. Clearly there are people with a natural capacity to put their thoughts into words. Despite that, I suspect that hard work and consistent writing make you successful. In blogging the tricky thing is finding a voice that’s unique – a style that defines you and sets you apart. And that only comes through experimentation. On 33 charts I’ve tried to adopt a minimalist voice that gets immediately to the point and appeals to the attention span of the average reader. Also, I try to ask and answer very basic questions that aren’t addressed elsewhere. I try to see things from a slightly unique angle and I think people like that.
MedCrunch: Great! How often do you write? Do you write daily? And how much do you write per day in terms of minutes or hours?
Bryan: I write for about 2 hours a day, usually very early in the morning and after my children have gone to bed. I write typically five out of seven days. Most of what I type never sees the light of day, however. Writing with full-time clinical responsibilities and a family presents some real challenges.
MedCrunch: And how many hours a day do you spend on sites or streams like Twitter?
Bryan: You know it’s interesting – I always have TweetDeck open so it’s hard to tell how much time I spend on Twitter exactly. Twitter is interesting because it’s become my primary feed for information. Most internet material that I read comes straight from people who I follow on Twitter. And I try to follow people who are much smarter than myself. I don’t like the ‘you follow me, I follow you’ approach that some people advocate. I think hard about how to make Twitter work for me as a serious tool for information management.
MedCrunch: Do you think that Twitter can also be a distraction? There are studies that claim that too much social media consumption actually makes us less happy. What do you think?
Bryan: Yes, Twitter can be a dangerous distraction. But this is true for email and all the other inputs in my life. For physicians over the next generation, our greatest challenge will be information overload. I like Seth Godin’s take on the story. He advocates the importance of ‘shipping’ – that is, the final act of making things. We can talk, we can theorize, we can plan, we can network, but it’s ultimately what we product that counts. And while my inputs are important in this line of work, my ability to ship is directly related to my ability to work without interruption. I think it requires discipline and space to cultivate creativity.
MedCrunch: What would you recommend to colleagues who also wanted to have a large Twitter following like you do?
Bryan: You know it’s interesting because I haven’t really made any effort to get a large following on Twitter. And as I said just a moment ago, Twitter has really become an inbound tool for me. In fact I spend a lot of time on Twitter but I don’t actually say very much. I spend an enormous amount of time watching my feed, looking at what’s inbound from really smart people and following those links. I try to retweet things that I believe are truly valuable which in turn creates value for my followers.
MedCrunch: Is there any career or success advice you would like to give to young colleagues who are just starting their clinical careers?
Bryan: Well I guess it depends how you define success? Perhaps one of the biggest problems I see in American medical trainees is that we try to push physicians down fixed, predetermined paths. For example, in American fellowship training you’re encouraged to do bench research as part of your fellowship training. Yet there are so many other interesting aspects of medicine. When I think about my passion for writing and communication, I feel that early on I should have integrated this into my ultimate career destination as a physician. So I would encourage young trainees to follow their passion and love and try to integrate that into what you ultimately do as a physician, even when it doesn’t fit the mold.
MedCrunch: So in terms of productivity, are there any apps you could recommend to our readers?
Bryan: I’m becoming increasingly dependent upon Evernote.
MedCrunch: What do you use it for?
Bryan: Well, whenever I have any idea with regards to writing or speaking, Evernote is where it’s captured. It’s on my iPhone and synchronizes nicely with my desktop, so it’s always there when I need it. Very few of the ideas that I have come while sitting at a computer. Also, recently I have started to put my Kindle highlights into Evernote (read Bryan’s post about how he accomplishes it here). That way I always remember the most essential points about a book that I have read. It’s pretty neat!
MedCrunch: One last question. You recently wrote a book review about a book called Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki. In this book, Guy claims that you should have a mantra for yourself. A short statement that explains what you or your company are about. In Guy’s case it’s ‘empowering people’. Do you also have one?
Bryan: I have no mantra. But I’m thinking I need one. I guess ‘defining the intersection of social media and medicine’ is where I’d start. But I can probably do better than that. I’ll get back to you.
MedCrunch: Great. Thank you so much for your time!
Dr.Vartabedian currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston,Texas and attending physician at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Dr.Vartabedian was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He holds a bachelors degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a medical degree from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr.Vartabedian completed his pediatric residency and fellowship in pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. He is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in both general pediatrics and pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition.
As a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media, he is frequently quoted by media on issues of pediatric and digestive health. Dr.Vartabedian has served as the national media spokesperson for companies such as Playtex and Biogaia.
Dr.Vartabedian has an interest in the evolving role of social media in health care. Since 2006 he has been active in the health blogosphere and currently writes the syndicated blog, 33 Charts. As an active speaker, Dr.Vartabedian has addressed the American Medical Association, the American Telemedicine Association and the Texas Medical Association on the issue of MDs in thesocialmediaspace. HeservesontheadvisoryboardfortheinauguralHealthTrackatthe 2011 SXSW interactive festival in Austin,Texas.
As a freelance writer, Dr.Vartabedian has written for a number of national publications including Parenting and American Baby. He is the author of Colic Solved – The Essential Guide to Infant Reflux and the Care of Your Crying, Difficult-to-Soothe Baby (Ballantine/Random House 2007) and First Foods (St. Martin’s Press 2001). He is a contributing author to The Real Life of a Pediatrician edited by Perri Klass (Kaplan 2009).
He is married and the father of an twelve-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter. Dr. Vartabedian lives in The Woodlands,Texas.