Dr Mikhail Varshavski, better known as Doctor Mike to his millions of followers, is using social media to cut through fake news
He was born in Saransk in the Soviet Union, before moving to New York, aged five, with his family.
He knew he wanted to be a family physician – the equivalent of a GP in the US – following in the footsteps of his father, who was a physician in Russia, and retrained in America from scratch in his 40s. “I was nine or 10 when I got to witness what it takes to become a doctor: how special it is being a family medicine physician…the relationship my father developed with his patients, the blessings he got when he helped a patient through a hard time, I fell in love with the field, especially when you couple that with my natural curiosity for science and the human body.”
Mike lives in New York City with his two dogs, Roxy, his family husky and Bear, a 150-pound Newfoundland, and practises over the river in New Jersey. He’s also an award-winning social media superstar with 7.6m followers on YouTube and 4m on Instagram, as well as a presence on TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and regular TV appearances. He’s also given a TEDx talk that has been streamed more than 2.6m times.
“I suddenly had a lot of invitations to do national media. Every time I did a programme, the conversation would be ‘are you single or are you dating?’ and I really wanted to move the conversation on to things I was actually passionate about – preventative health, myths in medicine, not just my dating life.”
Whilst Mike says there are times when he finds this embarrassing, he also says he’s ‘embracing it’. “It’s the ‘scandal’ that makes the media interested in me, but I can use it to get into some meaningful content…the advantage is millions of people are watching and getting quality [medical] information when they think they’re getting fun and silly things to look at.”
Mike sees social media as a way of connecting with a large number of people and increasing health literacy – something that has been particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic. But he’s aware of its downsides. “I get trolls and people being very angry with me when I put out medical information that contradicts their beliefs. There was a popular conspiracy theory documentary called The Plandemic. It was full of misinformation and I did a 38-minute video debunking it point by point. I got a lot of hate for that. It’s part of the job. But it’s not just trolls, it can be well-intentioned people putting out inaccurate information.
“There’s a dark side, but villainising it isn’t a solution, [social media] isn’t going anywhere and as GPs we have to go where our patients are – their eyes right now are on televisions and social media, so if we’re not there, the absence of quality evidence-based physicians is going to be filled with nonsense.
“I’m not talking about making people scientific experts…but basic knowledge will go a really long way to changing the world from a healthcare perspective,” he says.
He also acknowledges his responsibility as both a physician and an influencer, particularly when it comes to sponsorship: “You need to have a very strong moral compass. Every time a sponsor comes to my channel, I consider it thoroughly in my mind – is it ethically and medically responsible? I’m not a typical influencer, there’s medical information there and I have the trust of my patients. Integrity is vital.”