Benefield: Visit to White House has Santa Rosa doctor motivated
It almost sounds like the premise of a joke: A pediatric nephrologist, a physician-scientist, a medical student and a CEO walk into the White House…
But this is no joke.
Dr. Mark Shapiro, who practices at Providence Health’s Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, was in the West Wing of the White House over the weekend talking health care, health equity, civic action and a host of other ideas with a small cadre of health care professionals.
He was invited, by his estimation, for his civic engagement as much as his medical expertise.
He’s got a long-running podcast called “Explore the Space” and more than 25,700 followers on Twitter.
“The content of my podcast and the majority of the stuff I do with social media platforms, talking about social equity … I think those are the reasons I was part of this,” he said.
“This” was a fairly last-minute, pretty informal roundtable of doctors and health care professionals brought to the West Wing by Dr. Alister Martin, an emergency room doctor and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
Martin is also a White House Fellow, working in the office of Vice President Kamala Harris through the end of the year.
The idea, Shapiro said, was to bring engaged medical professionals together, physically, to discuss, debate and collaborate on wide-ranging ideas that those folks could bring home but also share to their wider social media audiences.
“Being active on Twitter has been rocket fuel for me for so many reasons,” Shapiro said.
He’s one of a growing contingent of medical professionals pushing back against yesteryear’s ideals of medicine not mixing with civic and social engagement.
It wasn’t always this way.
Shapiro, 46, was educated by a generation that not only dissuaded health care professionals from using social media, but actively urged against it.
“In the beginning it was a no fly-zone,” he said. “It was ‘unprofessional.’ It’s ‘inappropriate.’ I have overcome that messaging, both implicit and explicit.”
To say Shapiro has overcome any hesitation to use social media to amplify his message of engagement is an understatement.
He started his podcast in 2015 and has produced nearly 300 episodes. Guests and topics have ranged from Dr. Art Kellerman talking about firearms research, to a discussion about physicians who spread medical misinformation with the chair of the Board of Directors of the American Board of Internal Medicine. He’s also addressed advocating for adolescents with the Chief of the Division of Adolescent & Young Adult Medicine at Mass General Hospital for Children/Harvard Medical School.
“I think it’s part of our professional obligation. I think it’s, again, how do we encourage physicians to pick up their megaphone and go to where people who want to hear them are?” he said.
The pandemic proved a crucial turning point for Shapiro.
Doctors, nurses and health care professionals of all stripes were actively posting messages on social media, showing the outside world what the pandemic looked like within hospitals and health care facilities.
There were messages of fatigue, of despair, of frustration but also gratitude and hope.
But there were also messages infused with information, Shapiro said. And information was gold at a time of when so many felt confused about what was unfolding.
“There was an urgency to share information,” he said. “It was outside the world of hospitals, outside the world of academia. It was ‘Let’s exchange ideas.’”
Shapiro said his introduction to the power of social media came in 2020, when he committed himself to encouraging his health care colleagues to register to vote.
It was a campaign based on what Shapiro believes is a troubling pattern: Health care professionals, en masse, are not reliable voters.
A University of Pennsylvania study found that fewer than 49% of physicians voted in the 2000 election.
For comparison? Almost 70% of lawyers cast a ballot.
So he started talking about it. He started tweeting about it. He shares links to websites that allow folks to register in minutes.
Shapiro makes it clear — this is not a partisan effort, it’s a participation effort.
“I whet my teeth on this in 2020 and I’m coming in hard in the midterms,” he said.
Shapiro talks fast and excitedly. Exactly what one would expect on the heels of wandering the halls of what he described as “the most powerful building on the planet.”
His task now is to leverage his enthusiasm, leverage the new connections he made at the White House and take it forward.
“Standing in the colonnade, next to the Rose Garden,” he said. “You are connected to a sense of obligation. Take this home and go for it.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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