“The More We Can Change the World” – Blog-ter-view with Wendy Sue Swanson MD about physicians and social media

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD bills herself as ” a mom, a pediatrician ” who writes her insights about keeping kids healthy on the very (should I say “wildly”?) successful Seattle Mama Doc blog and Twitterfeed ( @seattlemamadoc ), out of Seattle Children’s Hospital.

I got to meet her in June (hooray!) and she agreed to answer a few questions about her experience in the interest of educating others.

Because she’s a very busy pediatrician, we going to do this over a few days in smaller bits, you can see that original post plus the interchange in the comments here.

Like lots of things in this medium, this was an experiment, we hope it unfolded well, and adds understanding about the role  and potential role of physicians in new media.

First Question:

Wendy, when did you discover social media and how did you discover it?


I discovered social media on a Saturday. I wasn’t in clinic or at the hospital; I was home, reconnecting with a friend from residency who was visiting from out of town. She is a pediatric gastroenterologist now, a fellow at CHOP at the time. I was pregnant. We were online looking up info about pregnancy when she said, “You need to be on Facebook. Now. It’s exactly who you are.” She has a sister, who was a Harvard undergrad at the time, and had introduced her to power of connecting and communicating using social networking tools.

Up to that point, I’d known very few people on Facebook except for our nanny and my teenage niece.

I logged on and set up an account. Instantly, I reconnected. Medical education had annexed me into a life of isolationism that I was unaccustomed to. Prior to my training, I felt connected and a part of my friends’ lives throughout the US. But after med school and residency, I hadn’t seen many friends. I’d missed reunions, weddings, and a funeral due to the rigorous work schedule. There had been a big shift in my social life.

On Facebook, I found the lost voices I’d been missing. I was able to capture and collect bits of the person I was prior to becoming a doctor.

I felt more whole.

I also learned I was less of an extrovert than I had previously thought. I read far more than I wrote. Social media and social networks were places and spaces to be quiet. While on bed rest with my second son, Facebook kept me company, providing a community that arrived effortlessly in my lap. Updates were an efficient way to inform friends about my pregnancy. When I was missing the interactions and contributions I made with patients, family, and friends, I opened my laptop. Social media nurtured me to the time of my son’s delivery.

Then last summer (2009), I joined Twitter. I witnessed and listened. Over a few months’ time, I recognized the potential for incredible change. I realized Twitter was a tool ready and able to improve the lives of children. During the H1N1 outbreak, I followed daily Twitter feed for updates on the evolving epidemic and treatment recommendations. Twitter improved the quality of care I provided. And thus, I started to spend more time on line.

In November of 2009, my career in social media began in earnest. I started a blog. Now I use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and my blog to connect, communicate, learn, engage, and empower families to use science in making decisions. I learn and emote. I laugh. And I now tweet nearly every day. But I listen, much more.

So you went from “physician spectator” to “physician creator” of social media content in November, 2009. Given everything else you were doing as a physician to support patients and families already, what were you hoping to accomplish through this medium?

It’s simply, really: I want to realign families with science. I don’t want fear-based messages to dilute current evidence and science that helps us care for children. There is vast amount of news that uses fear as a lure. I aim to use data and science to employ us all in preventing illness and injury.

I want parenthood to feel freeing, not fearful; I want to chronicle my life as a mother and physician. As data and new recommendations unfold, I share my perspective and take so that parents receive an unfiltered, uncensored opinion.

I want to help improve the way media reports on pediatric health issues. I want to bridge the growing divide between patient and doctor. And, I want to have fun. Affecting change, while guiding parents outside of the pediatric office, is a great fit for my family, my patients, and me.

Now I want to ask about the realities, for those who wonder what might happen next if they decide to do this…

Tell me/us about:

– The most delightful/exceeded your expectations aspect of your social media efforts? Feel free to think of an example where you said to youself, “wow, I am accomplishing what I hoped to.”

– The least-met-your expectations/wish it could have gone better aspect of your social media efforts? Feel free to use an example as well.

Ted, I have been surprised by the connections I’ve made on Twitter. I have met and communicate/learn from a cadre of physicians, nurses, patients, and parents I would not otherwise know. Twitter has therefore opened and expanded my world. I also use it to search for opinion and can easily survey the landscape on particular topics. I wrote a post about new initiatives and prevention efforts in childhood obesity one day utilizing Twitter to search and witness what others were saying about Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. During the few hours I worked on the post, I learned a ton about what the world was thinking. It aided in my creation of the post I was writing and in creating an effective angle. Many I follow on Twitter direct me to good content on a daily basis. I am indebted to them all for help in understanding what and how to write about to improve the lives of children.

The most delightful success for me has been due to one particular post I wrote about keeping children rear-facing in car seats until age 2. It has circulated all over the Internet and been viewed tens of thousands of times. But it’s not the “popularity” or the numbers that please me, it is the fact that having had this large distribution, I know I may contribute to saving the life of a child. If I do that, even once, the blog is worth it. This post helps me believe it’s possible.

Most frustrating part of working in social media is the way that my time on these sites detracts from my quality of life. There is a constant buzz, a near 24-hr cycle, to Twitter, blogging, and other social media networks. The blog, the comments, the pingbacks, the tweets are always there. There is always more to read or more to distribute. Unrelenting streams of information and thought…Because of that I have lost time to witness thoughts and the world in a way I did previously.

My other gripe is that the more time and effort I put into social media, the more I feel I need to do. It’s quick-sand-like power draws me in and distracts me from carving out any personal time. Between my practice, my media work, freelance writing, and parenting two young boys, I am left with little free time. I really miss that. And am working on ways to improve the balance. I’m not asking for help, rather explaining how this work has changed my life. Of course, I could compartmentalize my work better. But currently when I do, I am left feeling I’ve missed important, essential details that allow me to be effective and comprehensive. That sense of missing things jails me into working more…

Wendy, you honestly answered the question about “how do you fit this in?” which like a lot of things in medicine is challenging…

I wanted to close the interview with an important question for people who read this interview –

What kind of health care do you provide and what are your clinical interests?

and two philosophical questions –

How do you think doctors can best contribute to social media?


How do you think social media can best contribute to doctors?

I’m a part-time community pediatrician; I take care of children from birth to age 20, in an outpatient clinic. Simply stated, I’m a primary care doctor.

The majority of my practice is young children (infants ,toddlers and early school age) with the remainder being mostly adolescent girls. I take care of many children who were premature at birth or who are surviving/thriving with chronic illness. I have diagnosed HIV in patients and I see “real” medicine all the time. The majority of what I do in clinic is well-child care, diagnosing acute illness, advocating for complex patients, and teaching (children & families) about health. I learn and see new things every week. My experience being a middle school teacher helps me immensely every single day. The two most important things I do:

a) I write the orders and get parental consent to give vaccinations.

b) I ask adolescents tough questions.

As you know, clinic work is extremely rewarding (albeit exhausting). I think about and care about my patients; it is an utter privilege to provide care for them, too.

In regards to your philosophical questions:

1. Doctors can contribute to social media by simply joining networks, following on Twitter, or starting a blog. Lending opinion, transparently sharing expertise, and disseminating science will change the social media landscape. I believe, through social media, physicians can improve the health of communities. I trust there will be data to prove this very soon.

With such limited time in the exam room, social media offers up an easy platform to quickly share experience, tell stories, and give advice to many patients and people simultaneously. It is efficient. The more willing and engaged a physician is with social media, the more expertise they impart. Consequently the more they can change the world. No doubt about it.

2. Social media gives and gives and gives. Physicians can use it to keep up to date. And understand diverse (divergent?) perspectives. Social media provides a stream of information, update, and opinion that can both educate docs in real time and keep them abreast of research, expertise, and resources. Physicians can network, connect, and work more effectively in the fight against global illness and suffering. For example, today I have been watching a radiation oncologist visit Uganda on Twitter. Her updates, blog posts, and photos have transformed my lens on the world today.

Social media allows me to be informed by many different people within minutes. Quietly hearing thoughts and simply linking and clicking, I improve my fund of knowledge. A tremendous amount of learning occurs with a 1 hour commitment to Twitter, Facebook, or a healthcare blog. It’s disorienting really, yet then wholly orienting, all at the same time.

Thanks, Ted. That was a fun Blog-ter-view. My first!


1 Comment

Ted Eytan, MD