“I want everyone to get excited about their health.”
We’ve all done it. You meet a doctor and ASK about some ailment. For YouTube’s Dr. Mike (full name Mikhail Varshavski, D.O.), there’s always someone who will “ask me about a rash on their arm or on their leg and they’re like, ‘check this out.'” With 7.8 million subscribers and more than a billion views, Dr. Mike has turned those questions into viral content. “I want everyone to get excited about their health.” Once the pandemic hit, more people turned to his channel for answers. “I didn’t want to rush to cover COVID-19 because there was so much we didn’t know.” Instead, he focused on the facts while trying to calm people’s anxieties. “When we put out our first video, people really resonated with the message. It wasn’t to downplay COVID, it wasn’t to scare people, it was the appropriate message of stay alert, not anxious.” His message resonated, and he credits that to the power of YouTube. “This isn’t like TV’s on in the background; these are engaged viewers that chose to watch this, chose to comment, chose to have a conversation about it. I think that sort of impact is huge.”
What first made you want to focus on social media?
YouTube, for me, was an outreach of something that came up as a passion during my time in medical school. I became increasingly frustrated with all of the misinformation I would see on television. I would see my friends being fooled by misinformation, they would think that there’s some kind of miracle cure for whatever problem they had, they thought that they can get ridiculous results going to the gym by taking a certain supplement, or perhaps following some sort of plan. I saw how disconnected pop medicine was from reality and I wanted to find a way to bridge that gap.
Initially, it was posting certain things on my Instagram or doing little talks in high schools as a med student about my experience getting into medical school. Once my page sort of went viral in late 2015, I said, I have to expand this. What’s changed over the last few years is that you don’t need a TV station to put your message out there. You can be your own producer, you can be your own NBC, ABC, etc. I put together a very small team to help launch this YouTube channel. It was slow growth at first, but after doing it consistently for a year, the channel blew up, people started enjoying the type of content we were putting out.
Then the pandemic hit and even more people came to social media to get their information. With like 3 billion people logged in online, it’s no surprise that folks are getting their information from social media, or from the internet. So I thought, why can’t we be a valuable resource, we can take the information that the CDC or other experts put out, the information we know to be credible and present it in a way that is easy to understand and most importantly, not judgmental.
We’ve had tremendous success and our little team is starting to grow. We hit a billion views, we’ve had amazing experts on the channel from Dr. Fauci to the Google Senior Health Officer and the Surgeon General. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do. Dr. Fauci and the Surgeon General, they’ll go on other YouTube channels but the numbers that our channel does, it’s honestly primetime numbers. It’s in the millions. And this isn’t like TV’s on in the background, these are engaged viewers that chose to watch this, chose to comment, chose to have a conversation about it. I think that sort of impact is huge.
A dark side of social media is medical misinformation. How do you combat this?
I think what is happening, because it’s such a politicized time, folks get emotional and this includes doctors. So I’m trying to stay as rational and empathetic as possible, even with folks who completely disagree with me, at least initially, when it comes to the vaccine, or perhaps the way the pandemic has been handled, because the reality is, right now, we’re probably at the most politicized and politically charged time in a long time. If we can at least turn that down a little bit by becoming more empathetic or not being as aggressive in calling people out and strictly focusing on wanting to do good, explaining why we’re recommending a certain vaccine for a specific population, I think it goes a long way in getting people to change their mind. And it’s not only politically charged, but it’s also increased tribalism to some degree, where we feel like we’re part of this group and if you get me to agree with you, that means I’m leaving my group, so it becomes even more difficult to change someone’s point of view. But if you just present it in a way where we’re actually all on the same team, and we unite around a principle that we agree on, like keeping our children safe, or living a long, healthy life, that can go a long way to getting them to change their view on something like the vaccine.
The pandemic inspired a lot of people to turn to social media. What was a video you did that you feel connected with people during the pandemic?
Honestly, I think it was my first video. We had a really unique way of putting that first video out, because the chattering about the pandemic had just begun. In late December, maybe early January, people were talking about this virus, it didn’t even have a name at that point, and people were asking me because I would do a segment on my channel called a Wednesday checkup. And everyone’s saying, ‘How come you’re not covering this?’ I didn’t want to rush to cover COVID-19 because there was so much we didn’t know. And I am against the principle of let’s just put something out there to get clicks, because it would have been very easy to do that, and not say anything valuable or meaningful to my audience. So when we put out our first video, people really resonated with the message we were saying, and it wasn’t to downplay COVID, it wasn’t to scare people, it was the appropriate message of stay alert, not anxious. That message was so important to people because it said things are going to change, we need to be alert. But we don’t need to become emotionally worried about everything because then we’re going to overreact to news that might not be accurate. But if you watch the news every three, four days, as I was recommending in those earlier videos, you would be getting updates, you would be staying alert, but you wouldn’t be getting into that state of hyper anxiousness, nervousness, because that would affect your health. I think that type of messaging really went a long way to helping people feel informed, but not feeling like the world is collapsing around them. Because ultimately, that’s what I think a leader does. We put out information, we help people make decisions, we don’t think we’re above anybody, we don’t tell them what to do, we just say, here’s the info, do with it what you please. I run code blues in my hospital all the time, where someone’s heart stops and it’s very easy to become emotional or anxious, but we have to stay as alert as possible, but not fall into that trap of becoming overly emotional, because that’s where bad decisions are being made.
How do you balance the fun of YouTube yet still keep it about serious medical information?
I think YouTube is a place that is very akin to real life. And in real life, there are times you have fun, there are times you laugh, there are times you get serious, and there are times you become emotional. So for me and my channel, yes, absolutely there are times where this is primarily entertainment-focused content, with the secondary goal of throwing some medical tidbits in there that you may remember later. And then you have content that’s kind of in the middle ground, more educational, but also still fun. I’ll give you the example of the video I did called ‘Seven Types of Bad Doctors,’ where I did improv acting as doctors, who are perhaps ones that you should be looking elsewhere if you end up seeing them. And then you have the complete other end of the spectrum where it’s like, this is all serious, limited on the fun, but it’s going to be very relatable, very accurate and easy to understand. That’s something our channel does well also, we have this wide range of videos that honestly is not even ideal for the type of algorithm YouTube has. Because if you speak to a senior product manager at YouTube, they’ll tell you you should have a niche audience, you should be putting out the same type of content so your audience knows what to expect. So when they see it, they click on it consistently. And that way, you have a high click-through rate view duration. I’ve completely abandoned that principle and said, we’re gonna make a wide variety of content to please a wide variety of audience, and whoever needs a piece of information, they’ll find that on our channel, we’ll be that go-to source. And that has really served us well, because when the pandemic started, all the people who watched the medical meme content, the medical reaction, perhaps my medical story, all of them needed COVID information. So they all descended upon the channel. That’s why some of those videos are eight-figure sums in terms of views.
What’s the average age of your audience and how does that impact your approach?
For me, my main audience is 18 to 30, the main grouping 18 to 24, the second group being a little bit older than that. But for me, it’s always consistently reaching new audiences, to get them excited about health, because you never know what type of individual is watching the channel. My channel has such a wide variety, each piece of content has its own built-up audience, the people who watch are not always the same people who will watch a dense interview with Dr. Fauci or the people who may watch a video about Grey’s Anatomy. So it’s very segmented audiences, and it will change depending on the style or the type of content I’m making. But for me, I want everyone to get excited about their health, I want everyone to be learning and sometimes that means making a new style of content.
How often do people stop you for medical advice and what’s one of the wildest things you’ve been asked in public?
When you’re a doctor, people are always asking you stuff. Someone finds out you’re a practicing physician and it’s my grandmother has this or my friend has that. What I’m finding surprising is how casual people are about certain ailments, like publicly without shyness. I’ll be getting out of my car in a parking garage, and someone might recognize me or they might see I’m in scrubs and they’ll ask me about a rash on their arm or on their leg and they’re like, ‘check this out.’ People are always asking for advice.
How do you handle patients recognizing you?
I feel like I’m really blessed. My patients who have recognized me are genuinely excited about the fact that I’m their doctor and they’ve learned something from my channel, they want to continue learning and bettering themselves, become more motivated to follow the advice or feedback that I’m giving. So it’s been largely positive. In terms of helping me be a better doctor, whether it’s telling a patient ‘we didn’t have enough time to discuss this today, but I actually did a full video on it, you could check it out on my channel,’ or a patient coming in before their appointment for something and saying, ‘Hey, I watched this and I actually have some questions.’ Now they’re asking better questions. Or patients who haven’t seen a doctor and are now coming in for preventive screening, we’re catching cervical cancers early, or they’re being proactive about lowering their cholesterol, there’s just so much benefit from it. It’s not easy, because there are weird interactions where patients might get overly excited about the fame aspect, but I’ve become more in tune to sort of redirect that conversation back to their health.
Where do you see yourself taking the channel in the future?
I think a lot of people look at YouTube as a stepping stone for some kind of larger success, whether they want to be a celebrity or a TV star, movie star or what have you. For me, I view YouTube as the future, I think this is going to continue to grow. I think this type of independent creator content has a really good home on YouTube right now. So I’m continuing to evolve and create a bigger team, where the content evolves, not only from a production side, but we’re adding value and creating content that other people may enjoy that haven’t yet seen the channel, which means animations, stories, documentary features. And this is only possible if we grow our team so that we can continue making content that has been so successful as our foundation, and then growing to expand. But timewise, it’s obviously very difficult having a job as a doctor and making regular content. I just think the world needs medical information now more than ever, and I feel like we’ve been pretty successful at delivering and I hope we can all grow together. Because my patients will get older, they’ll need doctors more and more. And as they do, hopefully, they lean on our channel for that information.