HCPLive Chats with Seattle Mama Doc (Part 1)

March 4, 2011

In the first part of our interview, blogger Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, talks about the role social media can play in bringing the human element back to medicine.

In this two-part series, HCPLive talks with physician blogger Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, about why she has embraced social media, the power of the physician’s voice, and the challenges that all physicians—especially pediatricians—face in today’s environment. In 2009, Swanson began her blog, Seattle Mama Doc, to explain and clarify medical news to parents, drawing on her experience as both a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and The Everett Clinic in Mill Creek, WA, and as a parent.

In the interview, Swanson provided her thoughts on a number of pertinent issues, including the following:

What motivated her to start blogging:

It came about ultimately because I’ve always been interested in the space between media and medicine, and the forces at play in the doctor-patient relationship.

When a family watches the evening news and sees a health report, how does that change the way they trust, interact, ask questions, or approach the doctor in the exam room? These are the big questions. And as we get less and less time in the exam room, those forces are becoming more and more relevant.

For me, that curiosity was always there when I was a medical student. I got a master’s degree in bioethics because I wanted to understand more about the forces that play on the doctor-patient relationship—the litigious pressures, spiritual pressures, scientific pressures, and the host of other issues that patients bring to doctors that impact how we feel, what we’ve learned, and how we trust.

So when social media really started to rise to the forefront, I started to realize that all of these parents who were spending time on blogs and on the Internet started to approach the doctor-patient relationship—and ultimately, health care—differently.

Why it’s so important for physicians to maintain an online presence:

I started to recognize that as medical providers, we weren’t really at the genesis of any of this content. We were often relegated to these twenty-second, edited sound bites when something would happen that affected pediatric health—like Jenny McCarthy going on Oprah. The world would go crazy with whatever information was presented, the blogosphere would go crazy, and then a few days later, someone would put a news story together with the physician sound bites.

And this wasn’t really powerful, it wasn’t reactive, and it certainly wasn’t proactive.

I realized that there are great tools that I can use to start chronicling what I think about new research, what I think about what’s being talked about in the media, and what I think about pediatric health and prevention, and I can post those thoughts in a place where patients will go to learn and think about the care decisions they make.

Health information and the way that we access it is really changing with some of the Pew Research Center studies that are coming out saying that like 80% of all people who go online are looking up health information (http://hcp.lv/fThnFx). This is really a part of how we as patients and how we as doctors are coming together to understand how to make decisions about preventing injury and treating illness.

The difference between experience and expertise:

There is a remarkable sense of distrust right now, because of the palpable fear of the political environment in our country—which I think bled into the medical space, and the fact that anyone can be a publisher and create content and opinion and put in online. And because of that, there’s a lot of confusion about the difference between expertise and experience. Both are important in health and in decision-making, but what’s happening is that instead of using experts to help make health decisions, we may just be talking to people who have experiences. And those experiences are relevant, but they may not reflect how evidence is used to make good decisions. That’s why it’s important for the clinical community to be in this game; to create content, and to bring patients and doctors together again.

I can’t believe how much distrust there is. I often point to the issue of vaccine hesitancy because it’s one of the biggest threats to pediatric wellness right now. It’s remarkable that science is losing ground. In the case of the Andrew Wakefield controversy, you have someone who has been completely debunked, yet the vision he created is still thriving and the flame is burning. And in my opinion, it’s not doing anybody any good.

I have the fortune of having the education and training and being a board-certified pediatrician, and yet my voice gets lost to someone who goes on Oprah. Maybe that’s okay, but ultimately, is that really going to protect their child’s health? Do we want that to be the strongest voice?

Balancing out the voices of celebrity activists:

We’re losing ground as scientists and clinicians. All of the efforts that have been put forth to understand the best ways to treat and prevent illness are getting lost. And that’s why I’m putting my voice out there. That’s where I can utilize and harness my own skills, my own voice, and my own experience to help families calm down or get a sense of reason about what health issues are being discussed on a daily basis.

Ultimately, everyone is entitled to an opinion. But what’s happening is people are confusing what they hear from celebrity activists as fact and equalizing all of the voices out there; saying that one mom’s story is just as relevant as 100,000 patients in a study that experienced a different outcome.

Where I hope blogs find a role is to unite or synergize the act of storytelling with science. When a physician writes a blog, we can use both of these powerful components. We can tell our story and we can also decipher the science. And that’s who we have to be.

Part 2 coming soon