Doctor blogger proves the value of expert communicators

Seattle Children’s physician is a one-woman content machine, demonstrating that medical and other specialists can speak to the public at large.

If you’ve ever wished you had an expert who could translate your industry’s gobbledygook into compelling communication, meet Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson.

A popular pediatrician, speaker, and blogger, she brings a fresh voice that communicators in health care—and other industries—can only envy.

So we were interested in a compelling speech Swanson gave for TEDx Talks in Nijmegen, Netherlands. If you have an eloquent but reluctant physician in your hospital—or expert in any other organization—check out her talk, “Why are patients not finding their doctors online?”

A one-woman content machine, the Seattle Children’s hospital doctor has 24,000 Twitter followers and blogs about everything from Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize to the risks of teen marijuana use. She maintains a Facebook page and a YouTube channel.

If that isn’t enough to keep any doctor busy, she is a weekly medical contributor to NBC affiliate KING 5 News in Seattle.

As Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan notes, “She is also the only person in the 45-year history of Ragan conferences to get a standing ovation.”

“When I first met her and was mesmerized by her passion for the subject, I told her that she could easily become the next Sanjay Gupta of the medical world,” he adds.

Multiple roles

In her TEDx speech last year, Swanson describes her multiple roles, drawing on insights as a pediatrician, mom, wife, daughter of a leukemia patient, and survivor of two diagnoses of malignant melanoma. She calls on doctors to expand their online presence as a way of reaching out to patients.

“We’re stressed,” she says. “We’re stuck in the middle of those that need us. And it doesn’t feel to me that health care is serving us in the way we need it. We do not have the tools to get into the charts, to get into the pathology reports, to go to where we want to go in the way that it’s set up now.”

Swanson notes that 1 billion people are active on Facebook, with teens using the platform more than 10 times a day. She cites the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, which states that 95 percent of teens use the Internet, 77 percent have a cell phone, and 47 percent carry around that mini-computer known as a smartphone.

Eighty percent of patients go online to look up health info and 75 percent go to Google first—rather than a doctor—to ask, “What’s this funny thing on my knuckle?”

That means the job of clinicians and caregivers is to meet people where they really are. Yet medicine hasn’t kept up.

“I can’t communicate with my teenagers in that way,” Swanson says. “When I draw their HIV tests at age 16, which is recommended, I can’t get it to them without calling a parent and getting a cell phone number and getting back to them in a traditional way, or sending a letter.”

Listening as well as talking

Swanson says her goal is as much listening as talking online, to find out where myths are being created, how parents are reacting to new research, and how medical recommendations fall short. She calls for a greater access to electronic medical charts, and a deeper and greater partnership between patient and doctor.

Feeling envious about Swanson’s reach? No wonder. As Mark Ragan says: “The biggest reason health care PR people love her is that she’s a role model for what they want in doctors. When communicators go to sleep at night, they dream about having a Wendy Sue.”

Who knows? Maybe you’ve got your own dynamic communicator waiting in the wings.


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