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In today’s AMA Update, Joel Bervell, a social media educator and fourth-year medical student in Baltimore, shares how he is using his social media platform to address health disparities, racial bias and misinformation in health care. Joel is the former AMA medical student digital fellow. AMA Chief Experience Officer Todd Unger hosts.
- Joel Bervell, social media educator and fourth-year medical student
Unger: Hello and welcome to the AMA Update video and podcast. Today we're talking to one medical student who's using his social media platform to address health disparities, racial bias and misinformation in health care. I'm joined today by Joel Bervell, a social media educator and fourth-year medical student in Baltimore. Joel is also the former AMA Medical Student Digital Fellow and a social media star. I'm Todd Unger, AMA's chief experience officer in Chicago. Joel, thanks so much for joining us today.
Bervell: Thanks for having me here.
Unger: You are a fourth-year medical student. And of course, you don't have anything else to do. So in addition to that, you've become known as a medical myth buster online. I just want to start out for the folks out in the audience here, tell us the story. How did this start?
Bervell: Yeah, so like you mentioned, I'm a fourth-year medical student. I'm actually doing a research year at Johns Hopkins right now in orthopedic surgery. But somehow, I became known as a medical myth buster for posting content online about health care disparities, the hidden history of medicine, and things that are overlooked in our history of medicine that we don't often talk about in medical school.
But for me, the reason why I even started to talk about these things on social media was because I saw an article in December 2020 about the pulse oximeter, which I think a lot of people have heard about now. But essentially, the study was showing that in Black patients, pulse oximeters can overestimate oxygen saturation, meaning a patient comes in, and let's say they have low blood-oxygen levels. The pulse oximeter may show them as higher, causing that patient to maybe be sent home earlier or without all the necessary criteria that should actually be looked at for that patient.
I remember reading that study and thinking, I never saw this in my medical school classes. Why is that? And so I did what anyone else would have done. I made a video on TikTok that ended up going viral. Within 24 hours, it had over half a million views. And most of the comments were from health care professionals. Doctors, nurses, PAs, saying that they had never heard about something like this, and that it would change their practice.
And so I started to ask myself, what other things like this that affect marginalized communities, are not talked about in medicine? And how can I use social media to start building and talking about these issues that I'm not getting in my own medical school classes, and that I probably will never get down the line? And so now I have a whole series called "Racial Bias in Medicine," where I talk about all these different ways that medicine needs to change still.
Unger: So you do this first post, it goes viral, and you say clearly, this is resonating with an audience out there. Of course, now becomes a tough task for all content creators, Joel. And you know what it is. It's be consistent and have that flow of new ideas. Where do you get your ideas?
Bervell: That actually was the easy part for me. Because as soon as I started diving into this, I was shocked by how many things that were out there to talk about, whether that was medical history things that I found interesting, whether that was ongoing changes that were happening in this, I like to think of the George Floyd protests as this racial reckoning where people were having these conversations more.
And so the ideas weren't hard actually. More so finding the time to create all these ideas, and putting them into a way that was easily digestible for a generalizable audience. And so I actually have a little outlook book where I keep all my notes. And I probably have, I kid you not, over a hundred ideas that I still want to make videos on about everything from race-based medicine to, example, medical figures that are not talked about enough that were huge pioneers whether they're Black Americans or Latine people.
And so really trying to find the time to make these ideas happen is the biggest difficulty right now.
Unger: See, that's what I do with my LinkedIn posts. I have a little thing on my phone. And I just try to record those ideas that come along. But clearly, I'm not doing what you're doing. So big evidence of that is your incredible online following. Did you expect that you would have so many followers on social media? And why do you think you're getting that kind of traction and recognition?
Bervell: Yeah, I definitely did not expect it. I started making these posts just because I found it interesting. And I wanted to honestly document it and be able to explain it in succinct ways to other people. But I mean, now I have over 750,000 people across TikTok and Instagram. And I think what I see from a lot of the comments of people is that they're not able to find the content I post anywhere else online. That's—most of it's locked behind paywalls.
And so if you think about a lot of the research that's being done, it's—you have to pay a journal in order to get access to it. But by bringing it in an easy way into a 30-second video and being able to explain how this impacts patients, that really allows people to step into this world that seems really abstruse and be able to engage with it. And so I think that's why the posts have done so well. It's things that affect everyone. But they haven't had the ability to be able to get access to it.
Unger: Who's the most interesting follower that you've heard from?
Bervell: Oh, man. There's actually been a lot recently. Jesse Williams just followed me the other day. And that got me really excited because he plays "Grey's Anatomy" character. And so that was really cool. But I think the first person that followed me that I was like, "oh my gosh," was Jordin Sparks the singer. So that was really, really cool.
Unger: And then you have a few little side events like going to the White House. Right?
Bervell: Yeah. So I mean, starting the social media, I think people, like I said, hadn't been getting this content in a way that was digestible, easy to understand. And so I started getting a lot of people reaching out from different locations, including the White House, including the World Health Organization, about helping to push different narratives about public health. How do we actually make it engaging for a new generation? And so with the White House, I was on the health care leaders and social media roundtable with the Office of Public Engagement.
And that was an amazing opportunity to hear from the Biden-Harris administration about things that were happening on the ground, and being able to create videos in real time about that. So one example of that was the new 988 initiative, which is a new number similar to 911, in a way to get people that are in need of a mental support to be able to call an easy number. Previously, the number was a really long number. Now it's just 988.
So initiatives like that, I got to hear about early before it was out to the public and got to actually create content to help people understand about these new initiatives, or health policies, that were there to help individuals.
Unger: That's very cool. Joel, you've also been thinking a lot about the science of quote "awe", A-W-E, experiences. Tell us what you mean by that. Why is that on your mind?
Bervell: Yeah, I put out a tweet just a few days ago about that. And I think the reason it was hitting me so strongly was I'd just come back from Ghana, West Africa, which is where my parents are from. And we took this pilgrimage of sorts to the village where my dad grew up. And it was just so awe inspiring for me to kind of walk the streets where he had grown up and realize how far my family has come. I think in a way, it's a lot of the American dream that we think about.
But also, just to see this narrative of where it began, where my family's begun, which in a lot of ways has to do with health care, has to do with medicine, and where I am now. In all experiences are these moments where you look at these mundane things in your everyday life and you're able to take gratitude in that. And science is actually showing that it has a lot of health benefits.
But I've just been feeling so many of those moments recently of just being thankful for family, for friends, for this field of medicine where you're able to see people at these really low points but able to step in and actually try and just offer support of some type.
And so finding these moments and using them to kind of remember why we're here and remembering your why of why we even do medicine. I think awe moments for me are those moments of remembering why and what we can do here to make the world a better place.
Unger: And I'm one of your 750,000 followers. And so I saw your post about that. And so need to hear you talk about that kind of combination of your online life, and your real life as well, and where you're getting inspiration. You've all—you've talked about too that there aren't enough voices out there like yours. You're the first Black medical student at your medical school. You've changed the conversation in your classroom. Tell us more about that. Why is that so important?
Bervell: Yeah, I think a lot about I mean, the mentors I've had in my own life, and the people that have impacted me. And everything I do, I can trace it back to someone who supported me in some way, whether it was a scholarship or whether it was a person who said, you can go to medical school. My first actually experience—well, actually I'll take it a little bit—step back and tell a quick story. But when I was in college, I think I almost dropped out of being a pre-med student. I was like, this seems really hard. There's easier ways to make money if I wanted to do that.
I almost went the tech route. I actually, my freshman year, I interned at Google. And so that was like—the tech route was where I wanted to go for a long time. But during my junior summer, I had the opportunity to shadow surgeons at Howard University Hospital, which is a HBCU. And it was in orthopedics. And those doctors really instilled in me the idea that if I really wanted to, I could be a doctor and that they'd had their struggles along the way as well. But they got to where they were today being these incredible surgeons able to care for a community that was often overlooked.
And after that summer, I came back. And I just had this new fire lit within me to go back to medical school and use the things I've learned from them about giving back to make sure I dedicated my life to actually pursuing medicine and doing more with it. I just felt like having those mentors tell me that I could get there was that final push I needed.
And so now when I look back, I think about myself being in their position being able to do the same thing for other students that come forward. And I think that's why I'm so passionate about using social media. You can reach hundreds of thousands to millions of people to tell these stories. Because so many people don't have access to surgeons that can tell you, hey, you can do this. But with social media, it's a possibility. So I think that's why I do it, why I'm so passionate about creating these narratives, about making sure that people's voices are heard and raising these untold stories because I think that's what makes people want to get involved and engaged to change the world.
Unger: Well, you certainly are inspiring. I know that. And I've seen a lot of the work you're doing. Because you participate in a lot of different leadership groups. You mentioned the White House. You've got the World Health Organization, the VA, the hospital system, where you're using these platforms and these partners to really drive home a message about equity and inclusion, and to combat the spread of misinformation. No shortage of that these days.
In terms of your focus when you think about all the different kinds of things that are going on in your head and that you could do, kind of what's at the center of this? You talked about your why and your purpose. What is it?
Bervell: That's always a big question. I tell you. I think I'm still trying to find my why. And it always changes. I think for me, it starts with family. When I think a lot about even talking about health care disparities, a lot of the reason I talk about it is because of things that have happened in my own personal life. My grandma unfortunately passed away in Ghana because she had malaria and they told her to bring her own IV tubes. And she didn't know about it. That's a disparity, a global disparity, but one that I found.
I've had family members who have had autoimmune diseases that went too long to get diagnosed because telltale signs weren't obvious in Black skin. I think these little things that affect my own personal relationships with people are things I know every single person goes through. And I'm now in a unique position to understand why it happens, to really pull back the layers of understanding what we can do to change it.
And I think that's really my why is, just even focusing on my family, the things that happened in my own personal life, knowing it happens in other places, and now having the knowledge to be able to step in and try to make sure it doesn't happen to someone else.
Unger: Joel, final question. And it has a lot to do with this issue of misinformation, about amplifying physician voices. So important for physicians to be a source of information out there on social media. What's your advice to students, to physicians out there, that may not have the aspirations to have a quarter of a million followers, or three-fourths of a million followers out there, but who want to use social media to engage and to get the truth out there? What would you tell them?
Bervell: I always say that social media gets a bad rap. But social media can be positive if you use it positively. So for physicians, for students who feel like they have something to say, just start doing it. I think there's a lack of doctors and medical professionals on social media that know what they're talking about. And people want to find this accurate information, want to connect with people that know what they're talking about. And I always tell—physicians ask me all the time, I have nothing to talk about.
And I'm like, that's not true. Have you spoken with a patient today? And you're like, yes. Did you tell them about a diagnosis? Yes. Did you explain how they can actually treat the diagnosis? Yes. Take that and make a video out of it. Because that's exactly what people need to hear. What you are having those personal conversations with with your patients, that's what everyone needs to be hearing. And so I mean, Nike's quote, "Just do it" because the world needs more people to actually put out accurate, equitable information.
Unger: Absolutely. And I encourage everybody listening and watching this to follow Joel on all his platforms. Joel, where do people find you out there in social media land?
Bervell: You can find me on TikTok, on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook. And it's all the same username. @JoelBervell. J-O-E-L B-E-R-V-E-L-L.
Unger: Joel, thanks for coming on today. I feel I'm having a brush with social media greatness. And I hope it rubs off on me too. What you're doing out there is just fantastic. And just thanks for being a role model to all medical students and physicians. That's it for today. We'll be back with another AMA Update soon. In the meantime, you can catch all our videos and podcasts at ama.assn.org/podcasts. Thanks again for joining us today. And please take care.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this podcast are those of the participants and/or do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.