In the world of digital doctors, medical advice is a dime a dozen. No shortage of Twitter docs exhort followers to dutifully apply sunscreen, schedule their colonoscopies, exercise more and eat less.
Then there’s ZDoggMD, aka Dr. Zubin Damania, a Stanford-trained internist. He’s the irreverent yin to the coterie of earnest physicians’ yang, with a bevy of saucy YouTube rap videos including one championing safe sex that’s titled “Pull and Pray” and another about the importance of getting the flu vaccine that’s packed with R-rated double entendres.
With more than 50 videos and nearly 1 million views, ZDogg — a nod to rapper Snoop Dogg, natch — is finding that his anti-white coat take on all things public health is resonating with a growing online community for whom the traditional nagging-grandmother eat-your-peas approach isn’t resonating.
“They want someone they can laugh with,” says Damania, who is 39. “I’m the antithesis of most of the doctors who are online and in the clinic.”
When Damania began making videos in 2010, it wasn’t without some trepidation. “I thought, Is this going to get me in trouble?” he says. Then he looked around at his surroundings and relaxed. “Yeah, right,” he recalls thinking, “how gangster can a doctor in the suburbs around Stanford be?”
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“Pull and Pray” has been played at student health clinics as a cautionary tale. “Hard Doc’s Life,” a parody of Jay-Z’s “Hard-Knock Life” that bemoans the pile of paperwork through which physicians must wade, has 114,000 views. And “Immunize: the Vaccine Anthem” pokes fun at vaccine deniers. Next in his sights? A parody of Usher’s rap video “Yeah” that will update people about the new CPR recommendations that focus on chest compressions only, without the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Oh, and a video about childhood obesity dubbed “Baby Phat.”
Damania makes the videos with two pals from medical school; he’s also made some with his father, who is a retired primary care physician. And he doesn’t just take on public health messages. He recently targeted home-birthers, posting a Someecard captioned: “Sure, Sally, home is a perfectly safe, comfortable and acceptable place to give birth. If your home is a hospital.” To critics who support home births, he says: “Sorry hippies! Just keeping it real.” He tackles probably the most revered social-media/pop culture doc of our time, Dr. Oz, dubbing him “one quack to fool them all.” And he pokes fun at pharma, with another Someecard that reads, “Today I’m going to find a drug rep and give them a pen with MY name on it.”
Far from alienating doctors who push out more conventional messages via social media, Damania has cultivated them as fans. Dr. Kevin Pho, an internist north of Boston who has collected more than 65,000 followers on Twitter, takes a more strait-laced approach to connecting with patients. But Pho, who describes himself as “social media’s leading physician voice,” acknowledges that some people respond better to off-the-cuff, even raunchy, perspectives.
With patients increasingly getting medical information from Facebook, Twitter and Google, Pho thinks Damania’s approach is useful because he “packages messages in a way the public can understand.”
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“I talk to a lot of doctors and I tell them that they need to be involved with social media because that’s where their patients are,” says Pho. “Zubin is not everyone’s taste, but we need to use all our tools to reach as many people as possible. There will be a certain demographic that this appeals to.”
Take the flu shot video, for example. Not long ago, Damania was invited by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to move to Las Vegas to work on his videos and help start a primary-care clinic downtown as part of Hsieh’s vision to revitalize the area. The flu-shot video was filmed for viewing at Zappos’ all-hands company meeting in August. Many of the dancers in the video are Zappos employees; the company has since notched a 35% increase in flu shot adoption over the previous flu season. “We had a big bump in January when flu hysteria kicked in,” says Damania. “It gets tweeted a lot.”
And ultimately, as fun as the videos are, that’s the point — to get public health messages heard. Even though this season’s flu vaccine is estimated at just 62% effective, it’s hard to argue with any approach — irreverent or not — that persuades more people to get immunized.