Physician Thought Leaders in the Digital Age

April 3, 2012

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?


Kara Nance April 3, 2012 at 9:06 am

Great article and very astute insights. So wonderful to have leaders like you to mentor physicians like me that are trying to educate a broader audience and make a more powerful impact. Happy I met you at SXSW and thrilled to have discovered your writing!

DrV April 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Of course, Kara, this is unchartered territory. You’re as much of a leader as anyone else. But honored nonetheless.

Bishan April 3, 2012 at 9:39 am

Great article- thanks for posting.

I think the digital age brings us into the exciting new era of free expression and multidiciplinary communication which will set stage to not just one but multiple new Physician Thought leaders. As the article suggests these positions will no longer be limited to a handful of people who are holding on tightly to their academic strongholds, but instead perhaps we will see leadership in thought where and when it is needed. This shift may also open the doors of communication between doctors and nurses, physicians and patients, allopathic and complementary practitioners, as it may finally facilitate a healthier balance between art and science on the main stage of health care. Here’s hoping at least!


Steve Levine April 3, 2012 at 11:50 am

Bryan: Define “KOL” please. Thanks

DrV April 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Key opinion leader….

Steve Levine April 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Ahhh … of course! Keep up the good work, you KOL, you.

Bob West April 3, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Great post, Bryan! Democratization is the operative word here. Like so many other facets of life heavily impacted by the internet, medicine is now open to leadership and positive change by almost anyone anywhere who has the necessary skill set to apply to prevailing problems in healthcare. It will be important for new physician thought leaders to keep thought channels open to all. That includes patients, as well as physicians.

Cmaer April 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm

A doctor from New Zealand recently said in a speech he posted on Twitter that physicians who are leaders in this digital age should be training new doctors the best ways these can use social media to improve patient health and that of the health care system, even if they themselves did not come into practice with familiarity with these tools

Matthew April 3, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Hi Bryan,

Great post and an issue I’ve been thinking about a fair bit. There’s certainly a rage for dialling in on the latest podcast and picking up the most recent tweet, and on the surface it’s great that all of this open access cross fertilisation is happening. Like you suggest however, the traditional forms will probably remain and, I reckon, probably should as there is little to guide users as to the validity of online opinion. Just because I might have 1000 followers on my medical Twitter account, doesn’t mean my opinon is correct nor valid. You’ve also rightly raised the issue of conflict of interest, especially where money is involved.

In general most online contributors are genuine – let’s face it, it needs a fair bit of commitment to ensure continuous high quality content. Only time will tell which ones are worth following. Journals and institutions have recognised authority, but haven’t always been squeaky clean (the Boldt scandal springs to mind), but a core group have proven themselves to be largely trustworthy.

As with most things in life, rushing to adopt the latest trend wholeheartedly and unquestioningly and rejecting the more traditional methods as passe (essentially a form of extremism) is probably not the wisest course and a balanced approach of incorporating new resources alongside trusted older ones is likely to provide the greatest benefit.

Thanks for raising the topic

Lois Wingerson April 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

An important and insightful essay also for those of us in medical publishing who are struggling with the transition. How can we create the best and most trustworthy forums for these new opinion leaders, and how will their audience want and need to encounter the wisdom they want to convey? Clearly Twitter is not the best place for this. How can we create the best place for it?

Matthew April 12, 2012 at 1:12 am

Hi Lois,

While I agree with you that Twitter doesn’t lend itself well to a credible learning and high-end knowledge exchange platform, it is useful for drawing in an audience to your preferred platform. Time-poor practitioners who seek to maximise their efficiency often use portable media such as Twitter, (increasingly) Google+, iTunes and RSS feeds to keep in touch with recent developments and releases. If the item is interesting or relevant enough, they are likely to follow the link to the source, which can be something that everyone can bemore comfortable about its outward appearance of tradition, credibility and validity. So media such as Twitter can be a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

Take care

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