The doctor will interact with you now

Health Influencer 50 number one Michael Phelps is a prime example of the numerous high-profile influences on people's awareness across a whole gamut of issues that is completely changing the face of healthcare.

Olympian Michael Phelps is just as likely to influence health choices as a local physician. (Photo credit: Talkspace).

Going to the doctor these days is a very different proposition to what it was when I was growing up.

The interaction is much more of a two-way process compared to the linear broadcast style of previous generations.

Patients are informed in a manner that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago. They seek out their own information online and through social media. They follow influencers that range from entertainers to athletes to celebrity physicians to citizen activists.

Last time I visited a specialist, the doctor asked me which of two different types of medication I would prefer to take to treat my ailment. My reply was similar to the one I give cabbies when they ask me which route they should take to get me home: "You’re the expert, why don’t you tell me?"

But that’s me.

Doctors have become accustomed to patients arriving in their offices genned up with research from the web, their friends and other reputable sources that simply weren’t around in bygone times.

The professionals are changing their behaviors because patients are more informed and demanding. They’re not just going to accept the expert opinion without pushing back or asking for more explanation. And, on balance, that’s a good thing.

In the old days, people would be prescribed significant drugs with long-term implications following little or no discussion. We trusted our physicians implicitly and we generally took their word as the best course of action.

I’m not for a moment suggesting doctors didn’t have patients’ best interests at heart. But these were different times and there was a different dynamic between ordinary people and authority figures. The world is now much more democratized, informed and open.

So when someone says they’re depressed or somehow not feeling right, they’re not told to "stop being weak and pull themselves together." Rather, they’re encouraged to seek therapy by high-profile public figures such as the number one on PRWeek and MM&M’s 2019 Health Influencer 50 list: Olympic swimming G.O.A.T. Michael Phelps.

Phelps has laid himself bare in the public eye and opened up to the significant issues he suffered with anxiety and depression in a way his counterparts in previous generations simply didn’t do either.

Back then it was perceived as weak. But now, when the most decorated Olympian of all time says it’s OK to admit weakness – in fact, it represents strength – ordinary folks recognize they are not alone and can do something about it.

As Oren Frank, CEO and cofounder of Talkspace, the online therapy system Phelps helps promote, explained to PRWeek: "If this guy struggles with this and does something to actively counter it, maybe I should do the same."

Similarly, tennis legend Serena Williams has responded to her own experiences of pregnancy to advocate for improvements in maternal healthcare, especially for black women in the U.S., who are more than three times as likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes.

Williams self-diagnosed a serious problem during her own birthing experience that could have been fatal if it wasn’t treated, in the face of skepticism from some of the nursing staff. She has invested in a startup called Mahmee to focus on maternal and infant health and appeared at Advertising Week in New York City in September to talk about building Brand Serena.

Phelps and Williams are doing more to educate and communicate to the American people about health issues than any amount of public information films or adverts on the walls of doctors’ surgeries.

Doctors are also jumping on the influence bandwagon, with the likes of ZDoggMD – Dr. Zubin Damania – attracting celebrity-style engagement via 1.4 million followers on Facebook, (plus 540,000 following his "evil" alter ego Doc Vader), 260,000 on Instagram, 160,000 on YouTube and 46,000 on Twitter. Social media physician Dr. Kevin Pho’s KevinMD website receives over 3 million page views every moth

Activists including Ethan Lindenberger, Shannon Watts and Meredith Berkman are weighing in to great effect on the important issues of vaccines, gun violence and vaping. Then there are the fitness gurus such as Jocko Willink, David Goggins and Kelly Starrett who are encouraging a sedentary nation to get up and get out there in the quest to improve physical conditioning.

This has led to new healthcare business ventures responding to the modernization of the space, such as Hims and Hers, whose CEO Andrew Dudum is profiled here and who came in at number 4 on the Healthcare Influencer 50. And long-established pharma brands such as GSK are leaning into risk and seizing cultural moments to spread their messages in a much more creative way than has been the norm in this traditionally conservative and heavily regulated area, as CMO Amardeep Kahlon and HI50 number 7 explained to PRWeek.

So, yes, the doctor is in.

And he or she will see you now.

But the experience is being mediated in a totally different manner, with smart and knowledgeable patients informed by influencers, innovative new healthcare enterprises and increasingly bold pharma and healthcare brands using the best in modern marketing and communications to tell their stories.