At 33 years old, Austin Chiang, MD, MPH, GI Fellow ’18, is an old hand at new media, in the vanguard of a generation of “digital natives” who grew up on MySpace, Friendster, and Xanga (it’s OK if you haven’t heard of them).
As director of the Endoscopic Bariatric Program and Chief Medical Social Media Officer at Jefferson Health, these days his social media presence tends toward the professional, but he certainly hasn’t lost that early internet sense of communal whimsy. From the arcana of advanced endoscopy to highly relatable personal reflections on life’s journeys, Chiang tends a virtual garden that is equal parts inclusive and authoritative, inviting feedback while weighing in decisively in his areas of expertise.
His enterprise role, assumed in late 2018 not long after joining the faculty, came on the heels of a freewheeling, blue-sky conversation with Stephen K. Klasko, MD, MBA, president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health. Impressed with Chiang’s grasp of the social landscape—and his ability to amass more than 23,000 Instagram followers in less than two years—Klasko appointed him as the first-ever Chief Medical Social Media Officer.
“We saw a need to have a liaison between the media relations team and clinicians, especially when discussing health,” Chiang says. “I’d realized that since Jefferson was disseminating medical knowledge online, the impact could potentially be increased if we engaged more clinician voices.” As Jefferson’s tweeter-in-chief, he is responsible for raising the institution’s profile, teaching colleagues about netiquette (how to conduct oneself online), and researching best practices for each platform—in between caring for patients.
A good example of the kind of impact Chiang believes social media can have is the #VerifyHealthcare campaign he and his fellow internet-savvy doctors launched last September to highlight misrepresentation of health professionals in social media. In the face of widespread health-related misinformation, including but not limited to vaccination, they tried to clear the air so patients and interested readers could better navigate the deluge of information returned by any internet search.
“We thought, if you’re going to trust what we say online, this is what I have to do to back it up,” Chiang says. “And for my followers out there, please double- and triple-check who you’re trusting online.” Together, Chiang and his online cohort posted their credentials on social media and detailed how to look up an individual’s board certification and medical licensure, inviting prominent healthcare posters to add their own bona fides. #VerifyHealthcare spread quickly and
included a (voluntary) takeover of Medscape’s social media platform, widening the campaign’s reach even further.
Though this campaign was a potent proof of concept, it wasn’t the inception of Chiang’s interest in the power of social media’s impact on health. During his internal medicine residency, he interned at ABC News’ Medical Unit, where he saw how medical information was shared, how sources were vetted, and the many factors that shaped a narrative. As a part of this experience, he participated in weekly Twitter chats with various guest experts, witnessing firsthand the high level of interest and engagement medical topics could draw. “I knew I had to get involved with medical social media, so I created and managed my division’s social media accounts and established my own professional internet presence,” he recalls.
On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, he sought out other physicians, caregivers, and researchers, conversing and collaborating with them, sharing each other’s content. Chiang says different platforms offer different strengths: Twitter has become a sort of informal academic salon, where users can debate one another, while Instagram remains a great way to engage lay audiences and share personal tidbits.
Over time, these relationships evolved into more serious collaborations, culminating in the creation of the Association for Healthcare Social Media, the first professional medical social media society, in spring of 2019. Chiang is president of the 501(c)(3), which is led by an executive board of 15 and quickly attracted more than 500 members in its first month. “We’d started as a small community online and realized we all shared this passion for engaging with patients,” says Chiang. “We created this association in order to provide guidance on how to be a doctor online and to give patients resources for safely navigating online medical information.”
When he’s not online—which is most of the time, believe it or not—he’s an attending and interventional endoscopist in Jefferson’s Division of Gastroenterology. A product of the division’s advanced endoscopy fellowship program, he performs endoscopic weight-loss procedures that aren’t available anywhere else in Philadelphia. “A lot of people might think of gastroenterology as maybe irritable bowel syndrome and colonoscopies, and I do very little of that,” says Chiang. “Most of what I do is pancreatic cancer-related diagnostics, bile duct-related, and then these advanced interventions.”
He credits Jefferson as an essential finishing school, where he was able to hone his skills. “When it came time to look for jobs, Jefferson was top of mind,” he says. “I know I’ll still need mentorship, the ability to ask questions, and the division has been a very nurturing place to launch my career.”
Chiang has found himself acting as a bridge-builder in a burgeoning field: explaining diet to internet strangers, HIPAA to med students, endoscopic suturing to fellows, and hashtags to department chairs. Still the eternal student, he realizes that the internet has leveled certain relationships, that interaction has gone from professorial monologue to spontaneous conversation.
Today, Chiang and his colleagues are exploring the possibility that accessible experts can add to the discourse. “I think there’s a real curiosity about who we doctors are as people and any glimpse into our lives … is a really effectiveway to build a connection and create trust.”