When the pandemic hit the world and his hospital, Dr. Austin Chiang '03, “the TikTok Doctor,” came to the rescue. He started creating content on social media to empower patients with accurate medical information about the virus and vaccination. To this date, his TikTok page has gained more than 120 million views, 397.2K followers and 14.2 million likes.
Chiang, now a leading online influencer in gastroenterology and endoscopy, vigorously advocates physicians’ social media presence to educate patients online to precisely address this issue. He is currently an assistant professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia, PA, where he also serves as the chief medical social media officer, whose role is to lead various social media campaigns and policy designs and to educate other clinicians around the nation.
He has thrown himself into social media to help patients better understand gastroenterology, an area of medicine related to the digestive system. He serves as an officer in four different medical associations and as an editor of Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, the leading gastroenterological newsletter.
Following his social media fame, it didn’t take long for prominent national channels, such as The New York Times, CNBC and BBC News to spotlight him. He is now a seasoned interviewee who shows no instances of rambling or incoherence. He smiled widely and often throughout our virtual interview, offering glimpses of the hilarious persona he has established online.
Novel approach to global health
While our current world is dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, health misinformation is an invisible pandemic that has devastated all of us for decades. But addressing it is difficult, and untrained sources preaching fallacious notions have not helped.
For Chiang, TikTok videos and social media posts offered a new way to reach patients.
He has used them as a vessel to help break down the science into more digestible pieces, helping the public navigate both daily and complex health choices. After hundreds of posts, his TikTok page now touches on almost every pertinent fact about the coronavirus and gastroenterology.
His videos clicked quickly with the public; the apex of attention on health professionals during the pandemic enabled his messages to reverberate across all social media platforms. “Many of us felt a responsibility to answer questions and clarify areas of confusion [during this time],” Austin said.
The pandemic impacted his own practice and livelihood immediately, as he had to take pay cuts and rearrange his entire schedule to prepare for a massive influx of patients. The dramatic change provoked him and other health personnel to “rethink how to approach public health” and “alerted [them] all to the vulnerabilities of our health system.”
Social media was also Austin’s solution to the issues in the dynamic between physicians and patients he had noticed over the years. “I think we have a responsibility to humanize who we are, our profession, because so many people see us as intimidating, unapproachable or distant,” he said. “I just want to bridge that disconnect that divides patients and health professionals, because I feel like there’s a lot of mistrust in our health system.”
Larger motivations and purpose
Austin’s decision to establish an influential online presence dates back to 2013, when he was troubled by his patients who were getting wrong information through the media. Curious to ascertain how reports on the evening news about new medical discoveries were being regulated, he became a resident member of the ABC News Medical Unit. Through assisting the newsrooms, he learned how the company utilized Twitter to foster weekly discussions about various health topics, and started using the platform professionally himself.
During his time as a trainee at Harvard Medical School, Austin received “a lot of red tape” while exploring the medical use of social media. He felt obligated to conduct research in social media to justify the unconventional path he was envisioning.
But truly believing in the “why”, to share and educate, helped him focus without getting caught up by the “red tape” and all the noise around him.
So did meeting important mentors along the way, who inspired audacity and grit within him. He points to his professor at medical school as one, who later served as the deputy secretary of health and human services for the Bush administration. “She sat me down and actually said ‘you’ve got to think bigger, I see you doing something way bigger — public health related — not just this one-on-one patient interaction thing’,” Austin recalled as if he still found it hard to believe.
Spearheading the expansion of health professionals' social media network ultimately led him to found the Association for Healthcare Social Media (AHSM), the first nonprofit professional society to help health professionals use social media effectively and responsibly. He aims to discover the various gray areas about social media to improve upon the social media landscape to prevent health misinformation. “I would hate for people to be misled by all the misinformation on social media,” he said, regretfully. “And I feel like we should be the ones putting out the health information if we were trained in those areas.
He does not dwell on strictly physical health issues. Austin uses his platform to speak out about social justice issues he is passionate about — many of which he considers as public health matters that also pertain to his patients. This past year, he primarily supported The Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youths. His relentless advocacy led to his nomination as a “TikTok Queer Advocate of the Year” in the GLAAD Media Awards this year.
Though he ultimately did not win the title, a recent Tweet of his exemplifies his enthusiasm for this pursuit: “AHHH! @itsjojosiwa just said my name! Thank you for all you’ve done Jojo (heart)(rainbow). Honored to have even been nominated.”
Ambitiously hosting the one-man show has brought Austin close to burnout multiple times. “Part of that is my own doing because I overextend myself, and I want to do everything and want to say yes to everything,” he said. Only after years of blocking out advice to learn to say “no”, he is finally “starting to get that, just out of necessity. I simply can’t do it all.”
Now managing all the consequences saying yes has brought, Austin diagnoses himself with chronic sleep deprivation, with a grain of shame in his laugh, reiterating the cliche that “doctors are the worst patients.” Carving his sleep time appears to be the only way for him to enjoy the personal creative life he craves after hours, as he is so occupied with his job.
Early years of ambition
However, this intensity is not new for him. “[In high school,] my parents were so involved and wanted me to experience as much as possible and put me in a lot of different classes.”
Austin attended Taipei American School until graduation after moving from Irvine, CA, in 1996.
The intellectual crowd made him reckon with his academics in a serious manner; he was the quiet “gunner,” he describes. He would be rushing home to finish a project due two months ahead. He believes he transformed into a completely different person after leaving Taiwan, to someone that his classmates never expected him to be.
However, his former classmate Evelyn Chen '03 recognizes much more resemblance between his high school self and current public persona. She remembers him at “the center of many social groups” and stage, where he was the concertmaster of his orchestra through middle and high school. He was also a strong enthusiast in biology — hence his medical pursuit after graduation — who was the only student to attend his biology teacher Mr. Olson’s Friday after school trips, which most students only went on once to fulfill the requirements.
Being an intense, stellar student in a competitive environment had often left Austin narrow-sighted. “Looking back, I would have traded some of the culture shock [I received when I came back for college] for actually being integrated more into the Taiwanese community, because I feel like that’s something that I never truly understood because I was so focused on the TAS community.”
Again, early figures of valuable mentorship helped him “take that extra step” outside the TAS bubble to understand what is important in the world. To this day, he still often thinks back to the teachers who took time outside of what’s required of their job description to give him extra guidance, as reference for how he mentors hundreds and thousands of health professionals and patients now.
“[The expanded worldview/perspective I gained back then] now helps me be a little more empathetic about the cultural differences, about what drives people to do certain things they do when it comes to their health, how to approach patients and be respectful of the cultural differences.” He is especially grateful now, witnessing the prevalent injustice in the U.S. driven by the lack of empathy and understanding of different backgrounds.
After leaving Taiwan for the United States, Austin maintained the rigor figured prominently in his upbringing to achieve accomplishments even more impressive. He graduated from Duke University, then attended Harvard and Columbia University to earn his M.D. and M.P.H. Earning not one but three certifications, he soon became a prominent gastroenterologist and one of the few triple board-certified advanced endoscopists in the world. Behind these accolades also lay his genuine intellectual curiosity, a perpetual desire to be around inspirational people to prove himself over his naysayers.
Attitude breeds success
Keeping an open mind and being adaptable to a rapidly changing environment have been key to Austin’s accomplishments so far; he particularly thrived off of following pursuits that are unconventional and unfamiliar. After persisting in his vision despite the ridicule and eyerolls directed at him at the beginning of his social media journey, he now strongly believes that others’ discouragement is simply a sign that they are uncomfortable because it has not been done yet, and that it is oftentimes “a niche that you can explore.”
“Had I been entirely committed to just one path, especially the standard path that was expected of me, I would not have done half the things I’ve done,” he said. “So I’m leaving some of [my future] to chance.”
With all the responsibility he takes upon himself, Austin is tasked with being more than just a doctor. But through every move he dances and every lyric he sings, he continues to safeguard us from the ubiquitous health rumors and invites more professionals worldwide to join his novel way to approach patients worldwide.