Letter to the editor: The vascular influencer

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W. Michael Park
Dear editor, 

Reading “Likes, dislikes and reposts: The new age of the vascular surgery influencer,” by Drs. Jean Bismuth (@jeanbismuth) and Jonathan Cardella (@yalevascular), they rightly point the spotlight on the trend of some vascular surgeons posting cases on social media for the purposes of self-promotion, virtue signaling, and influencing. 

I can agree with their point that many of these posts are made by mediocre practitioners who display only the best and curated images, but I felt uncomfortable with the feeling that I may be one of those people being castigated for over-exposure on social media. They warn the readers of the dangers of misinformation fed to an uninformed public, but overlook the potential of social media for education and community. Being a vascular surgeon who has been on social media for over 15 years, there are reasons why I am here which are not explained by this article. 

Be the lede 

My journey started with hacking Google searches. My first job out of fellowship was a faculty position at my medical alma mater, Columbia P&S. The PR department asked everyone to compose a blurb for a web page and after searching on Google on how to rise in a Google search, I wrote out a paragraph full of the right verbiage to maximize my relevance on search. It wasn’t very difficult in 2002 to do this. Searching “vascular surgeon in New York” on Google after posting that info page consistently brought me up to the top five links, ahead of whole departments and many big names. I did over 400 cases my first year out, and I really felt if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere. 

Bury the lede 

Unfortunately, like many vascular surgeons in New York, I got named in a lawsuit, and like many young surgeons with limited means and large loans to pay off, I couldn’t fight it and took the advice of hospital lawyers and settled. After that lawsuit, a Google search would return an article by the law industry PR around 2007, and I was at that point very busy in private practice in Iowa. It was so discouraging seeing that as the only thing speaking for me. I decided that I had to take an active part in shaping the message around me, to not let my Google search profile be defined by that article. 

I decided to write and figured a few articles every week over a year would bury that article behind many better articles. I began to blog about something I am both horrible at but aspire to greatness in—golf (www.golfism.org). Writing about myself and my struggles in golf and being a young father and husband was how I found my voice. It was during this period I found my best pieces were when I gave something of myself. 

After finding my author legs, I began writing about vascular surgery, something I’m pretty good at but aspire to greatness in, on a personal blog (docparkblog, on Apple’s defunct cloud service). After a year, the blog got only 30-50 hits a day, at most 100. By internet standards, that’s low, and I kept my day job. After giving a talk at Midwest Vascular to an audience of about 50 mildly interested surgeons, that 30–50 engaged readers on my blog a day felt pretty good. A hundred was amazing. Medscape eventually tapped me for blogging on their site. My blog there, “The Pipes Are Calling,” was rated among the top five most-read medical blogs in the world when I shut it down in 2011. 

The influencer 

This social media presence generated influence -I was asked to participate in prominent research trials like PIVOTAL, CVRx, and CREST and others despite being in private practice. This is common now, but rare 15 years ago. The blogging did bury the lede. It eventually generated misunderstanding in the hospital administration at that time in 2011 and I was asked to stop blogging, at least until they could figure out what this internet thing was about. In 2012, I joined the Cleveland Clinic, I huddled with their social media department and came up with ironclad rules: 

  1. All accounts were to have the header that posts and articles were my own opinion and not of my employer 
  2. All patients sign a media release for posting of case histories and images 

After launching www.vascsurg.me in 2013, I chose to focus on technique and opinion. I used my LinkedIn and Twitter accounts to promote my articles. I always communicate in my authentic voice, although over the years, I’ve toned down the irony which is frequently misunderstood. In moving to my current hospital, University Hospitals, the first thing I did was arrange for a social media release and confirm what I was doing was okay. In reading the article by Drs. Bismuth and Cardella, in 2023, misunderstanding is still at the core of arguments against the use of social media. 

The worst 

I have seen egregious examples of bad behavior on social media by physicians, as mentioned in the article. On my Twitter stream, I’ve seen people put stents in subclavian veins for thoracic outlet compression and wait for praise, which they get from similarly ill-informed people who don’t realize I see patients like this several times a year with swollen arms and faces. While I was in Abu Dhabi, someone put stents in a patient from the common femoral to popliteal artery, and received accolades for “minimally invasive skills” from all corners of the globe, only for me to remove the stents a month later and perform fasciotomies on the same patient—a middle-aged claudicator! There, I couldn’t post a rebuttal to the original case presentation because of local social media laws. Despite the word getting out, the surgeon only doubled down on his minimally-invasive fantasies. About the same time, I witnessed a relatively famous person self-implode on Twitter while accusing vascular surgeons of butchery (his words) by supporting open surgery over head-to-toe interventions. He got crushed by the general disapproval of his misrepresentation and personal bullying of a vascular surgeon, and then disappeared from social media. Evaporated. Good. We all have to do better. 

The best 

I have also seen patients with rare diseases such as median arcuate ligament syndrome reach out and connect with each other and with physicians about diseases that aren’t taught in medical school or residency training on social media. There are Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, and sub-Reddits—rich communities of people who have to make serious decisions about their lives, many with limited access to specialists in their far-flung burgs and precincts. I think the fear is that bad decisions will be made based on bad information, but even in the highest, most rarified medical institutions, patients may get misguidance, have a complication, a poor outcome, in-person which can be worse than a social media interaction. If we value patient autonomy, access to the best information needs to be available. Social media lowers the barriers to access, for bad or good. Yes, it can do a whole lot of bad, but also an immense amount of good. 

Keeping it real 

The authors are correct in that people will prefer to promote themselves rather than air complications and bad outcomes. The American surgical M&M process is an amazing and cherished tradition and protected process. It has no place in social media. Most surgeons also take the view that social media presence doesn’t lengthen your CV, it doesn’t bill. The many cheap suits of medical social media, the hawkers, the hucksters, the fragile egos, will always be there on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

But other functions such as access and broad dissemination of information, experience, and opinion, are legitimate and critical. Comparatively few people get the message from a closed academic conferences and traditional modes of dissemination are slow. Most of the best social media posts are, as the authors mention, case reports. They fail to mention case reports under “open access” cost about $500 to publish. 

The peer review process, which I participate in, results in sometimes glacial turnaround times with papers landing often a year or more after presentation at a conference. I also learned from my time in private practice that these barriers block the voices of many legitimately great surgeons whose remarkable talents are only shared locally. I also learn from my time in academic practice that too many departments are not multiplicities of talents, but shops built around single personalities, who may declare that having never seen something, it cannot exist—to the detriment of those with unseen problems. Social media is the great leveler for patients and surgeons. It brings needed exposure to young surgeons building practices, while connecting people searching for solutions to people who may have a clue. The voices of non-academic surgeons are given a platform to broadly share their experience. If legitimately good people are dissuaded from participating, only the cheap suits will remain. As always, caveat emptor, et primum non nocere. 

W. Michael Park, MD

University Hospitals, Cleveland 

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