Truth From Comedy: ZDogg Does for Medicine What Late Night Is Doing for Politics

October 11, 2017
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Folks, we need to talk about ZDogg.

For those of you who have no clue what “ZDogg” means (which seems to be a diminishing share of the American healthcare community), there are a few key things to know.

ZDogg is the stage name of Zubin Damania, a doctor — a hospitalist, if you want to play the specialist card (and I know many of you do) — who made the perplexing decision to double-major in molecular biology and music as an undergrad before going on to medical school. The formula for his success is hard to replicate, but you might come close if you take a healthy dose of Weird Al, an infusion of Woodie Guthrie, and a few spoonfuls of a type of daytime television doctor/show host* that hasn’t really existed before. (*ZDogg himself would likely hemorrhage at being compared to Dr. Oz, and with good reason: ZDogg makes money by speaking to groups of health professionals, not by pitching snake oil to housewives.)

He’s turned that unconventional mixture into a powerful, uniquely modern, and earnestly transparent second career as a singing, touring, public speaking, social media-powered advocate for fixing American healthcare.

Doctors: Engagement Is Possible, and Powerful

He calls his vision for a better system Health 3.0, and there is a lot of thought, debate, common sense, and even new technology that features in it, but one of the more noteworthy elements of ZDogg and the 3.0 movement is that he’s achieved at scale what many doctors and admins talk about but seldom execute: engagement.

He has more than 617,000 followers on Facebook (and counting), his site draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each month (and rising), and his videos routinely rack up views and shares in the millions, even tens of millions.

Right off the bat, that should make all healthcare workers (providers, admins, and policymakers) perk up and take notice. By affixing a “Z” to his name (and most everything else: he calls his followers the “Z-Pac,” his children “Z-Pups,” his spouse “Z-Wife,” and so on), a practicing doctor has proven adept at leveraging social media, video marketing, and infotainment spectacle to create a massive, highly engaged community of people talking about healthcare, and the future they want to create.

ZDogg is proof positive that healthcare workers — doctors, no less — can and probably should get comfortable using social media and other “alternative” platforms and messaging to facilitate engagement — engagement with patients, administrators, peers, the lay public, and perhaps even with voters and lawmakers.

The other outstanding element of ZDogg’s second career is that, somehow, he managed to unite people from different medical specialties, different disciplines, different areas of professional experience, and even different political stripes, to have a massive, ongoing conversation about what is wrong with healthcare, and what a better version might look like. It is loose, messy, and alas, sometimes confrontational, but by and large ZDogg’s following is as earnest and passionate about positive change as he is.

Health 3.0

So what is this Health 3.0 that’s gotten so much traction online (and, it should be noted, at the many conferences ZDogg attends to speak and sing about the subject)?

If I’m to make a full disclosure at this point, I’m a fan. I enjoy his videos. I’m part of his “ZPac” of followers, as well as one of the 7,000+ members of The Healthcare 3.0 Tribe on Facebook, where much conversation and informal exchanges build the Health 3.0 discourse. I happily share his media and messaging at work and online. He not only does what few have meaningfully attempted, he does it well: people are talking about big ideas, big challenges, and doing so in a big group.

And that right there is no small part of what “Health 3.0” is: a very human, very social way of approaching healthcare. Lawmakers may be pleased to know that quality is part of the ongoing discussion: what it means, how to measure it, where to put accountability, and especially how to contextualize it all with other important measures of care. There is also much importance placed on whole-person health: teaching and talking more about social determinants of health, addressing the gaps in understanding of mental and emotional health, getting the specialists and providers in all these disparate realms of practice to share more and learn from one another. Most especially, given the share of the Z-Pac made up of nurses, ZDogg calls out our tolerance for violence against nurses on the job, advocates for more nurse empowerment and for more institutions and administrators to support nurses practicing to the full extent of their authority and license.

Uninitiated providers of all types may also be pleased to know that Health 3.0 cares deeply about provider health: his followers and his videos routinely confront the burnout epidemic which has literally killed untold numbers of caregivers — and which served no small part in sending him from exam rooms to recording booths; he calls out the rampant problem of caregiver abuse, and the way hospitals, administrators, and even laws contribute to empowering patient misbehavior without protecting providers.

Altogether, Health 3.0 is about bringing more voices, ideas, concerns, and experimentation into the formation of healthcare policy, while at the same time providing a community of resources for providers, students, and patients that they haven’t been able to access anywhere else.

Health Data Interoperability: Not Just for EHRs

ZDogg’s videos aren’t only of the musical variety. He hosts regular broadcasts from his studio as well as on the road, where the topics under discussion can switch as rapidly as he can find “guests” to interview and hotel bathrooms to tour (if you’ve seen his videos, you know that a video review of hotel bathrooms has been a mainstay of his livestreams for some time).

What this all means is that ZDogg’s followers and fans aren’t treated exclusively to the opinions, foibles, and stream-of-consciousness (or sometimes, rants) of ZDogg alone. He defers to experts, calls out comments and questions from students, nurses, administrators, even his faithful producer, a “Millennial Muggle” (read: non-clinical person) who helps bring his videos and broadcasts to vivid life.

Sometimes it gets messy, as public online forums tend to do, and ZDogg’s zealous, unscripted style draws fire. When Netflix documentary, “What the Health” began to go viral, ZDogg took the movie to task, and as a result got into a bit of a heated exchange with one of the film’s contributing doctors, who has his own Facebook following and video diary series.

Remarkably, in an age when tribalism, outrage, and online echo chambers seem to prevail, the two quickly managed to pivot from name-calling and undermining one another, and agreed that the real thing to do in this situation would be to produce a show together, and see if they couldn’t disseminate facts and evidence on the subject, rather than talking past one another at an audience of thousands with no resolution.

Even if you aren’t in healthcare, this is a heartening turn of events: two passionate, charismatic, professionals turning a viral sparring match into an opportunity to help each other educate, entertain, and above all, engage. Politicians, take note: when the outrage stops, listening is possible. And when people listen, they sometimes learn.

Ultimately, ZDogg and his guerilla comedy music videos aren’t the solution that healthcare needs, any more than becoming more like Wall Street and the Fortune 500 crowd is a recipe for making healthcare more effective. But there are important lessons to be learned here, perhaps the most important of which is simply this: healthcare is full of passionate, committed people trying the best they know how at whatever it is they do. Give them resources, and they will find a way to change not just the industry, but the world.