Physician Thought Leaders in the Digital Age


I was on a panel recently where it was asked, ‘What will become of the medical thought leader in the digital age.’  It’s an interesting question because it draws on what constitutes influence in the modern medical world.  How do we determine who we listen to and how will digital communication change that?

It used to be that influence in medicine was determined by traditional, industrial-age measures: publication in medical journals, institutional affiliation and influence within the guild.  The density of ivy outside one’s office window correlated with one’s smarts.  Rank on the academic ladder conferred who had the podium at The National Meeting.

While those who create new information in the lab will always be recognized for their contributions, this is no longer be the only variable determining influence in medicine.  As doctors collect in new spaces, new rules of influence will apply.  The digital age will deliver a new type of thought leader.

A few ideas on the future of physician thought leaders:

The physician audience now has a voice.  In medicine it used to be that few physicians spoke and the rest listened.  But ability of the physician audience to have the mike allows those previously shut out to become influential.  Solid thinking no longer needs permission to be shared. Expect to see regular doctors emerge as influential not based on their connections within ‘the society,’ but on the strength and novelty of their ideas.  Old world connections within dated institutions will hold weight only with those desperately banding together, unwilling to do anything different.

New channels make new leaders.  As the numbers of doctors consuming information and conversing in the online space increases, there will be new places for delivering information.  The journals and outlets of news and information for physicians will create new places for doctors to develop visibility.  Anyone with expertise can share that know how and create an audience.  New physician influencers will emerge from new these channels of publication.

Kevin Pho of KevinMD has fashioned himself as one of the more influential physicians online.  As it turns out, his platform is evolving as a place for doctors to showcase their expertise and opinions.  A KOL who has fashioned a place to launch other KOLs.  Academic affiliation or not, Kevin’s success is not a function of his position in an institution or society, but rather initiative and opportunity.

Home-made KOLs.  As a means of proactively playing to the new market, institutions will look to cultivate their own dedicated physician influencers.  These will be influencers not by the traditional measure, but social rainmakers with an eye for content, an ear for conversation and the smarts of a new age.  Writing, recording and connecting as a physician representing an organization will fashion itself as a new position.  Competitive institutions will create the conversation, not just respond to it.

Paid influence – then and now.  Kevin Kelly has suggested that where there’s attention there’s money.  And, of course, where there’s money, there’s influence.  Just as pharma has co-opted physician KOLs for speaking, the new influencers will have new avenues of conflict. Personal technology, products, services for other doctor’s or patients will represent the parties looking for attention.  There are lots of places to share information and exert influence.  This will require special attention both from those who create media to those who consume it.

What do you think the digital physician KOL will look like?