Fame: Why Docs Want It and What They Should Do if They Get It

Andrea Goto


November 03, 2021

Americans are fascinated with celebrity. Although few (or maybe even none) of us have risen to the levels of a reality TV competition winner (think Carrie Underwood) or been plucked from obscurity and catapulted into fame and/or infamy (à la Jeremy Meeks, AKA the "Hot Felon"), most people like to grab even the lowest-hanging fruits of fame when they're in reach, even if that's only a feature in a newspaper or a spot on local TV. And doctors are no exception. From podcasts and TV shows to social media stardom complete with branded merchandise, many doctors have discovered the land of celebrity and are staking their claim.

You're probably familiar with today's celebrity docs, whose success is measured by followings and likes. They are among the most popular doctors on social media today. Each has a well-crafted brand. Mikhail Varshavski, DO, a family physician, is the "hot doctor" best known as "Dr. Mike"; Jen Gunter, MD, is an ob/gyn and pain medicine physician known for pulling no punches; and Mehmet Oz, MD, was dubbed "America's Doctor" by Oprah Winfrey, who helped launch him to stardom. 

These brands are carefully curated, most likely with teams of behind-the-scenes content creators and SEO specialists. They'd have to be, because as any practicing physician knows, there is barely enough time in the day to complete patient notes let alone make music videos, post at least once a day on three different platforms, and engage a following in the tens of thousands — all of which leads to increased speaking engagements, media interviews, and guest appearances. 

But in addition to the time-suck that the flames of fame require to stay stoked, some celebrity physicians may also be sacrificing their credibility in the medical community.

Like Moths to a Flame

It's important to consider why people are drawn to celebrity in the first place. Unapologetic fame-seekers like the Kardashians, who've made a business of being a celebrity without substance, make it easy to trash fame. But licensed clinical psychologist Donna Rockwell, PsyD, who has written extensively on and studied the impact of celebrity, explains that the attraction of fame comes from a basic human need to feel relevant and as if your life counts for something. 

"If we are someone who is celebrated by our community, that is interpreted as 'My life is meaningful; I matter to people in this world,'" Rockwell explains. She describes the pull toward fame not as something necessarily negative, but rather as a response to a basic existential need.

But those good feelings one can get from receiving professional accolades or being cast in local news spots can be a gateway drug to higher levels of fame potentially fueled by ego rather than that existential need. "Once one does become a celebrity, that's the next chapter," says Rockwell. "That's when things shift into more of a pathological, dysfunctional level." There are the seemingly good things that come with celebrity: wealth, access, symbolic immortality, gratification, ability to motivate and incite change. But those same benefits also contribute to a loss of privacy, temptations, and feelings of isolation and mistrust. 

The Social Dilemma 

Social media in particular has provided a unique and often tenuous path to fame for a number of doctors, including Zubin Damania, MD, an internist whose alter ego ZDoggMD stars in YouTube music videos where he rants and raps about anti-vaxxers and larger problems within the medical system. His videos have garnered him tens of millions of views and, he hopes, help prevent people from falling prey to pseudoscience. "We just have to fight fire with fire," he said in an interview in 2020. "If the anti-vaxxers are weaponizing social media and using the algorithms to their advantage, then why shouldn't we?"

Dana Corriel, MD, an internist turned healthcare branding/strategy expert, also sees social media as "a new landscape" for doctors whose traditional role has always been composed of an interactive, private exchange behind the closed doors of an exam room or bedside curtain. "We're now scrambling to figure out how we best fit in," Corriel says. "And it's a lot more complicated than it seems."

Or maybe it's exactly as complicated as it seems. Corriel explains that success on social media platforms relies on a mix of ambiguous factors, including (but not limited to) charisma, social proof, likeability, good marketing, and ideas the majority agree with. "Generally speaking, when you're creating and sharing content, that content has to significantly 'click' with readers in order to draw in a much larger following," says Corriel. "Otherwise, you're just another wave in a vast ocean."

Pediatrician Ben Spitalnick, MD, former president of the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and co-author of Baby Care Anywhere, is often courted by the media to speak on medical issues as they relate to children and, most often, vaccinations. He appreciates Damania's "hip approach to medical topics" because he gets people's attention. "What I don't like is when doctors take the less mainstream view of topics just to be heard," making their voice the equivalent of a social media tidal wave.

Not all doctors share Spitalnick's enthusiasm for working with the media, because courting fame isn't for the faint of heart. "Many doctors won't do it because they're afraid of the social media backlash from the extremists," he explains. "They think it's harming their practice, but the reality is that most reasonable patients see those comments and know this is an unstable person."

Reading and responding to these comments can take their toll, which is why radio silence is the sometimes right approach. "As a medical professional, do not engage with anti-science when you know that your logical arguments aren't going to make a difference," he says. Spitalnick is referring to the internet trolls hunched over their computers waiting to anonymously pounce with their aggressive and inaccurate rhetoric. They spare no one, not even the voice of reason and science. In fact, the voice of reason and science might be their favorite target. 

Spitalnick is all too familiar with the wrath of anonymous internet trolls. He recalls the numerous times he's done an interview with a news station to talk about vaccines for children. The interview goes well; it's broadcast on TV and is very well accepted. The same happens when Spitalnick shares the story on his Facebook page. But then the station puts the clip on their Facebook site, which, like many news sites, has a large (or at least a very vocal) gathering of anti-science, anti-mainstream followers. 

"They will say the most harmful, inaccurate, and aggressive things," says Spitalnick. "They'll say, 'This doctor is obviously trying to kill children. This guy is a quack, he must be getting paid by the insurance companies!'" 

So why court fame at all when the potential drawbacks are so apparent?

Almost Famous

The obvious benefit to physicians in the public eye is how exposure boosts PR. "Every time you're out there, your patients or your prospective patients see you, and they realize that you are a voice of authority," says Spitalnick. 

However, Spitalnick sees the value of having a media presence as so much more than ego or patient building. "The reason I like to do it is because there's so much misinformation and sensationalized information out there that we need more doctors being the voice at the center," he says. "You get to be the voice of science and AAP, CDC, and WHO recommendations. You get to have a bigger reach beyond the exam room, but you also get to show your patients that you really stand behind what you tell them."

According to Rockwell, Spitalnick's clear intention, if maintained, will prevent him and others from falling victim to celebrity's dark side. "It's got to be for something larger than yourself," she says of putting oneself in the media spotlight. 

Rockwell points to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was pushed into celebrity as the voice of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a success story. "He was thrust into this position where he doesn't even have his life anymore," says Rockwell. "The only way people like Fauci can be okay with their fame is when they stay committed to why they are there in the first place. He has an existential commitment to living a life well lived and giving back and being part of something larger than himself. Those are the celebrities who fare better, too." 

In the sage words of actress Claire Danes, who, at 14, found herself swimming in the Hollywood spotlight with the success of the teenage angsty series My So-Called Life, "I think people confuse fame with validation or love, but fame is not the reward. The reward is getting fulfillment out of doing the thing that you love."

As long as physicians can remain clear in their purpose, the acquisition of celebrity will be nothing more than a step to a larger platform to engage, inform and educate — a platform on which to do one's best work. 


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