By Josh Katzowitz, WCI Content Director
[Editor’s Note: This is the first column of a three-part series on physicians who became social media stars. This part focuses on how doctors have created millions of fans while making a huge impact on social media. Part 2 is about the downsides of being a doctor on TikTok. Part 3 will arrive on October 23.]
Dr. Ali Rodriguez publicly started sharing her advice (and the details of her life) when she was only an intern in 2016. As she trained in OB-GYN, she recognized that so many women didn’t know how their bodies work, didn’t know about getting tested for STIs, and didn’t even know about basic anatomy. She was making videos for Instagram, and she had a few thousand followers. It was a passion project for her throughout residency, but she wasn’t making money on social media. She was just having fun.
Even before Dr. Tommy Martin officially earned his physician title, he realized he had a gift for helping others navigate the rigors of medical school. So he started a YouTube channel, in 2013, where the main goal was to spread positivity and to help students get through the process of medical school. He created YouTube videos, and he started posting on Instagram. But in 2019, his whole perspective changed, when he watched a video by Gary Vee: It basically said that with whatever message you’re trying to spread, if you’re not on TikTok, you’re just wasting your time.
Dr. Vicki Chan remembers when Facebook first hit the mainstream, when Mark Zuckerberg’s creation was mostly one big high school reunion, where you could get an update on all of your friends, past and present. She began building a brand on Instagram as a doctor/mother who loves fashion, using the knowledge she had gained from a previous stint in a direct sales business that utilized social media platforms for marketing. But until 2020, she hadn’t yet waded into the deep waters of social media—both the good and the bad.
All three had good intentions and good reasons for putting themselves on the Internet. They created accounts on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. They tried a number of strategies. All three were a work in progress.
And then . . . the pandemic hit in 2020. And for all three physicians, that’s when their online personas and brands exploded in popularity.
Thanks in large part to TikTok, Martin, Rodriguez, and Chan have become online superstars. They’re doctors first and foremost, but they’ve also gained hundreds of thousands of social media followers, meaning they’re now some of the most well-known physicians in this country.
Chan is an ophthalmologist, but most people now know her because of the humor and knowledge (and the dancing) she displays on TikTok for her more than 400,000 followers. Rodriguez has been an attending for a few years now, but she spends much of her downtime on her TikTok account, where she has 1.5 million followers and where she teaches about anatomy and sexual health while talking about her own life (and where, yes, she also dances). Martin just started a new job as a med-peds attending, but he tries to inform and inspire his 2.2 million followers on his own TikTok account (sadly, there’s not much dancing on this one).
All three have different online personas, and all three have different approaches for how to make an impact on social media. But first and foremost, they have the same primary goal.
“This is the one place where physicians have the opportunity to maximize their message and reach millions and millions of people,” Martin told me during a recent Facetime interview. “This is where we can stop the spread of misinformation and provide evidence-based information to the whole population right now.”
“I have so many younger patients,” Rodriguez told me. “They’re pregnant, or they just have all these questions. This is the generation we need to reach . . . This is how they communicate. They send TikToks back and forth to each other. TikTok is their Google. You can just type in a subject in it, and it can pull up all the videos linked to that [phrase]. Once I was seeing that, I knew I needed to put legitimate information on there.”
Said Chan, “You just see so much misinformation out there. Sometimes, I feel like I have to do it. If I don’t debunk this thing, who’s going to do it?”
How Do You Go Viral on TikTok?
All three doctors told me that going viral is an inexact art. Sometimes, you get lucky with the right message. Sometimes, you’re in the right time and place. And yes, sometimes the video you post that you think is rather mediocre is the one that gets watched by millions, while the brilliant TikTok you’re sure is going to take you to the stratosphere flops into the void with hardly anybody watching and with nobody caring.
TikTok has an algorithm that brings certain videos to the forefront of the app so that users can easily find what’s trending. If you post a high-quality video on a trending topic that has the appropriate hashtags and the most popular sounds and music, that video gets pushed to more people. The more engagement that users give a certain TikTok, the more that video will be moved to the masses. The more popular you become, the more that other people will see you, too. In that way, TikTok is kind of like Netflix. It’s just a matter of figuring out what content is going to be seen by the most people.
Early in the pandemic, a few of Chan’s TikToks got traction, and apparently, users thought it was cool that an actual doctor was talking about the pandemic, masks, and vaccines as she tried to debunk bad information.
Give me a mask over walking barefoot in the airport… 🥴 #travelsafety
When Martin made the transition to TikTok, he took a more scholarly approach. He set aside two weeks before he ever started posting to study which videos were doing well and why. What kind of text were those creators using? What kind of music? What were the trends?
Evidently, he figured it out. His first TikTok gathered 300,000 views within a week. Almost immediately, he gained 50,000 followers. But to Martin, his success is more than algorithms or trends. It’s about passion.
“All the platforms have their different unique things on how to perform well,” he said. “There’s one thing that’s true. If you make content about what you’re passionate about and what sets your heart on fire, you’ll do well. Being passionate is attractive.”
@dr.tommymartin Love and serve your patients like you would want you loved ones cared for IB: @nicojn05 #doctor #medical #residency #patientcare #fyp #foryou #greenscreen ♬ original sound – davey wifey
When Rodriguez moved onto TikTok, she was more interested in the music and the sounds that would go viral. She would open the app and scroll through dozens of videos. If she found three sounds (either a popular song or a famous line from TV or a movie that TikTokers begin using to boost engagement) she heard repetitively, she figured that sound was trending.
“Then,” she said, “I’d film three videos right then and there.”
All three took a different approach to learning about TikTok and all three have different TikTok styles, and yet all three have found massive success. Which means what? It’s not always about knowing what’s going to trend or about using a sound that’s about to go viral. It has to be more organic than that.
“My end goal is for me to have so much fun,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s also my creative outlet. If I’m not having fun, I simply won’t post. I’ve gone weeks where I don’t post. My passion is that I want all of my videos to provide some sort of education, some sort of inspiration, some sort of motivation.”
More information here:
How Much Money Can You Make on TikTok?
Rodriguez, Kelly, and Chan don’t seem to look at social media as a side gig where they can supplement their physician income. They’re more interested in getting their messages out to millions. But it’s also true that all three are making at least some extra cash from their social media adventures, even if the money is not their driving motivation.
The most popular TikTokers—users like Addison Rae and Charli and Dixie D’Amelio—can make as much as $5 million per year, according to Forbes. Even those who don’t have millions of followers can earn some money through the Creator Fund, which pays TikTokers who have more than 10,000 followers and 100,000 views over a 30-day period. In reality, a user might make, at most, a couple bucks per day from a high-profile video thanks to that fund.
But brand deals and sponsored posts can be more significant.
Business Insider reports that creators who have between 200,000-1.5 million followers can charge $600 for a sponsored post, while Alex Ojeda, who has more than 8 million followers, charges at least $20,000. Others can charge as much as $750 per video to promote a song that a record label wants to go viral.
At this point, Kelly, Rodriguez, and Chan are certainly not going to quit their day jobs to focus on TikTok. Yet, for this trio, it’s not necessarily about making extra money anyway, even though it can be a nice perk.
Rodriguez, for instance, loves fashion, and she writes about it on The Latina Doc website. She models her outfits and then provides affiliate links to her fans, which means that if they buy a piece of clothing that they found because of Rodriguez, she’ll receive a commission.
“So many people ask me where I find my stuff, so yeah, I do have affiliate links. It’s nice to get a little bit of money,” she said. “The people that follow me, I connect with so many of them, and they generally are supportive. But as of now, the amount I make is minimal to the amount of time I put into it.”
Chan says she gets approached “all the time” by companies that want to do some sort of product trade or who want to pay her for promotion.
“But this is where it gets iffy,” she said. “I’m not going to partner with some supplement company or with some wellness company. I get them all the time. There are opportunities for sure once you get to a certain level. But as a physician, I don’t take them.”
Martin, meanwhile, does make the occasional sponsored post, whether it’s on TikTok or on Instagram.
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But he has this caveat.
“I was doing content long before I ever received ad money, and I would do it regardless,” he said. “People could argue and say, ‘You do get money from the Creator Fund or you do get money from Instagram or YouTube Analytics.’ But none of that is very much money. Anybody that is doing brand deals, they should make sure they 100% enjoy the products and that they’re safe. I work with companies that I love to support and that I have used.”
More than the money, though, is the potential for other opportunities. As Chan said, posting on social media has given doctors the sense that they don’t have to be stuck in medicine if they’re feeling burned out, that there are other ways to find a community to inspire, that there are other ways to help people and make a living.
“That’s part of the reason doctors and people build these social media platforms,” she said. “You could launch a book or launch a jewelry line.”
Then, she sighed wistfully: “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe someday.”
Social media has created a whole new world. Some of it is good. A whole bunch of it is bad. But these physicians have found their footing in the TikTok space, and the world is probably better for it.
They try to be inspiring . . .
@dr.tommymartinSomebody bet I couldnt run as fast as the treadmill could go in my whitecoat……. Bet…..♬ Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash
They try to be funny . . .
They try to be informative . . .
@alirodmd Iced coffee or hot?? #coffee #pregnancy #caffeine #obgyn ♬ original sound – alirodmd
Most of all, they want to make people healthy. And instead of dealing with patients one a time to help them through their lives, these doctors on TikTok can impact the lives of exponentially more.
“We have to make the most of this privilege we’ve been given,” Martin said. “We literally can reach millions and millions of people. Even if we impact just 1% of the people that watch us, that makes all of our hard work worth it.”
[Editor’s Note: In two weeks, I’ll bring back these three popular physician TikTokers to talk about the downsides of social media and how they cope with social media’s inherent meanness.]
Song of the Week
Along with about 15,000 other sweaty (and sometimes smelly) people, I saw Iron Maiden live earlier this month, and even though these heavy metal icons are in their 60s and 70s, the band still put on an amazing show filled with energy and virtuosity. I previously presented you with some of Iron Maiden’s work and I would have showcased another song from the sextet this week, but Iron Maiden tends to write tunes about swordsmanship, beasts, and British history instead of songs about money and consumerism.
So, let’s turn to Iron Maiden’s tour opener, Trivium, a four-piece metal outfit that put on a solid show and properly got the sold-out crowd warmed up for the headliner.
It was also difficult finding an appropriate song from Trivium. The Deviant and its anti-corruption message (with lyrics like “Explicit deviance/Don't have to hide/Display their wealth of sin right ‘fore our eyes/Complicit in ruin/Protect with lies/Defenestrate, destroy/Mock and victimize”) was the best I could do.
What I found most interesting about Trivium wasn’t necessarily its music, though. If you don’t run in heavy metal circles, you probably don’t know about Trivium, but relatively speaking, it’s actually a rather successful metal band. It can headline theaters, and it's charted in the Billboard Top 20 a few times.
But it’s not like Trivium's members make millions of dollars from the band. In fact, lead singer Matt Heafy has a comfortable side gig as a streamer on Twitch, where he has 244,000 subscribers—and where he makes extra money by streaming himself playing video games and showing what life on tour is like.
“When I'm at home, I make significantly more from Twitch streaming than I do with Trivium, and then when I'm out on tour with Trivium, then obviously Trivium becomes more and Twitch becomes less,” he told Forbes. “But the fact that I'm able to make money doing what I should be doing off tour, staying conditioned, practicing, and being ready for a tour at any given moment, it's amazing.”
That interview was conducted in 2020 before the pandemic, and now, Heathy has significantly more followers and probably makes plenty more money.
As a physician, you can follow the rock star’s lead. Get a side gig, and you too can reach your journey to financial freedom even more quickly.
Tweet of the Week
This is a good reminder: Be careful of making fun of the people who you think have wronged you.
My card once started being charged for ridiculous random things, like small purchases at Staples, so I openly mocked how pathetic the spending was. But it turned out my friend and I had accidentally swapped cards while splitting dinner and I'd just been ripping her everyday life.
— Amara Grautski (@AmaraGrautski) July 5, 2022
Do you follow any physicians on social media? Who are your favorites? Have you thought about starting a channel on your own? Comment below!