YouTuber ViolinMD explains why she’s demystifying health care online

Siobhan Deshauer is a fourth-year resident specializing in rheumatology at McMaster University in Hamilton. She is also an accomplished violinist and popular YouTuber who makes videos about health care under the social-media handle ViolinMD. Since starting her channel three years ago, she has acquired more than 770,000 subscribers; her most popular videos have garnered 2.4 million views. ViolinMD will now be uploading some of her videos to Healthy Debate as well.

We chatted with ViolinMD about her background, training to become a doctor and operating her YouTube channel. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your social-media handle is ViolinMD, and you play the violin during the intro to your videos. Can you describe your background as a violinist, and in particular, tell us if being a violinist has helped you train to become a doctor?

I started playing the violin around the age of five. I performed competitively throughout my childhood. Then I did my bachelor of music in Violin Performance at Indiana University with professor Mauricio Fuks. It was an absolutely incredible experience full of personal growth. Throughout that time, I had no idea I wanted to be a doctor. I was completely committed as a violinist.

Until the final year of my undergraduate degree, it had felt like my head was underwater: I was so focused on expressing myself through music. Then I noticed a shift internally. I was on stage performing the pieces I wanted, the sound coming out of the violin was what I had dreamt. It was almost like I came up from underwater and looked around and realized that there’s this huge world out there.

The violin will always be part of my life. But I was drawn to engaging with the public rather than feeling separate from them on stage. And that’s what drew me toward medicine. There’s something so special about connecting with patients and hearing about their biggest struggles. People confide in doctors in a way that’s so unique.

But even when I finished my undergraduate, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure what I wanted to do. I performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra while taking science courses at U of T. Then I pitched a research project to Dr. Carol-Anne Moulton at the Wilson Center. I wanted to explore if surgeons who used to be elite-level athletes, military personnel or musicians used similar peak performance skills in their surgical practice.

I actually thought I wanted to be a surgeon when I first started in medical school because I was used to working with my hands. A lot of their experiences reflected mine as a violinist: I learned what it felt like to perform under pressure, to feel my heart-rate pounding and to know that that it’s part of peak performance. It certainly helped me with doing medical procedures, presenting to a staff when you’re nervous, running code blues. So I think there’s a lot of skills that I use on a day-to-day basis that come from my training as a violinist. I wouldn’t change my music past and I also wouldn’t change my choice to go into medicine. Now I feel like I’ve got a creative outlet within medicine which really reflects my personality.

Why did you decide to start your YouTube channel?

I like communicating with people. In medical school, I would often talk to my friends who are not in medicine and tell them “I had no clue about this before medical school, did you?” I found that people were really fascinated by a lot of these fairly basic facts about the body, how the health-care system works and about illnesses. So I thought that maybe I should start recording some of the interesting things that I’ve been learning. As a violinist, I would often use video as a medium, both for recording myself performing and also when I was practicing. So I felt pretty comfortable on camera. I started filming, had zero expectations, and was amazed to see the interest from both health-care providers as well as the general public as the channel started to grow. It felt very organic.

Did you ever think that you would have about 770,000 subscribers and videos with 2.4 million views?

Never in a million years. I was so excited when I got my first 100 subscribers: I was like, “This is massive.” It was a big change going from recognizing everybody who posts a comment, because they’re all your friends and family, to getting to know people around the world.

You just mentioned that your friends were fascinated to learn relatively rudimentary facts about health care. Is the purpose of your videos to satisfy that same curiosity among the broader public, or is there more to it?

At the beginning, I was simply documenting my own experience as a junior doctor, witnessing the full range of human experiences from birth to death. I wanted to make sense of it while reflecting on my own emotions. So it started that way. And then, from there, I saw how much misinformation there is on the internet. And I started to see the trust that I was building within this social media community. It made me feel like there’s a responsibility for physicians to provide accessible information to the public, especially these days. So I would say my goals right now are to engage people on health topics and demystify some of the scary aspects of going to the hospital and provide a platform to discuss rare diseases. And then have a source of trusted information where there’s positivity and curiosity.

You interview people from all walks of life, from dialysis patients from Guyana to an ICU nurse to people with rare diseases. What is the most memorable interview you’ve ever done, and why did it leave that impression?

Different ones have stuck with me for different reasons. Going to Guyana was absolutely incredible. I learned what it’s like to treat patients with minimal diagnostic equipment and witnessed the resilience and determination of the internal medicine residents to provide excellent care with the resources they have. It made me feel very fortunate to practice medicine in Canada. When I shadowed a nurse in the ICU for a shift, that impacted the way I act clinically, and it’s made me a more considerate physician – or I hope it has anyway. And then some of the patients with rare diseases just solidified my love of rheumatology and my interest in raising awareness for rare diseases.

Are there any other skills or points-of-view that you’ve developed while making these videos that have improved your ability to be a physician?

Well, one insight, almost an unexpected benefit, was that when people within the hospital start to recognize me, it felt like a warmer community. People seemed a little bit more friendly and the whole environment just felt nicer. It shed some light on the anonymity within academic hospitals, and how there are constantly different residents and medical students and learners passing through, which makes it challenging for the staff that stay put. It has made me wonder whether creating more personal connections within medical teams would actually improve our own satisfaction at work in addition to communication around patient care.

I also had a chance to work with speech language pathologists and dieticians and see what their procedures are like. So doing a barium swallow: I’ve ordered that many times, and I’ve never seen what it’s like for a patient or actually tasted the substances that they have to swallow. I got to try a bunch of the different supplements that we give to patients. And now I know which one kind of tastes like ice cream and which one tastes pretty crappy. And that impacts what I prescribe. So I think it’s given me a more personal approach without actually being a patient myself.

It’s interesting that when medical professionals in a hospital recognize who you are and know about your YouTube channel, it feels like some of the ambient sense of anonymity dissipates. I’m wondering if that is the most common reaction you get from other medical professionals. Or are there other common reactions?

I think, for the most part, people are excited to see this new way of communicating with the public. I’ve had unprecedented support, and there’s no way that I could have done all of these videos and had these incredible experiences to bring to the public without the support of the hospital or the university. So the response has been very positive. People are often curious, and more often than anything, people offer suggestions or actually want to participate.

I’ve heard that sometimes medical academics don’t always value or understand this sort of activity. Is that something that you’ve encountered?

I haven’t encountered that, but I’m aware that other people have. I think whenever something new comes up, you’re always going to have people on both sides of it, and rightfully so. I think it’s important to question why we’re doing something, how we’re doing it, and look at the downside. My feeling is that it probably has to do with making sure that it’s not going to harm the medical system or harm patient-physician interaction.

I also think it has to do with not recognizing how information is spread, especially with different generations. A lot of people get their information online, and one of those sources is YouTube. I personally believe that having more physician representation online with reliable information is critical. It also allows you to reach an audience that may not otherwise engage in health information, or who may not have access to a physician who can answer their questions.

For a selection of ViolinMD’s videos on Healthy Debate, click here.

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Max Binks-Collier

Digital editor and staff writer

Max Binks-Collier is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Intercept, The Walrus, the Toronto Star, and Maisonneuve, among other outlets.

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