How Dr. Alok Sharan is using social media to enhance clinical spine practice

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Alok Sharan, MD, co-director of the Westmed Spine Center in Yonkers, N.Y., and deputy editor of Clinical Spine Surgery, earned his master's in healthcare delivery science at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., in 2015. 

Since then his goal has been to evolve his practice and look at the spine field through a new medium — social media.

"Everyone who writes a paper has two goals: to have an impact on the field and to have reach. The reach is always the hardest part," Dr. Sharan said. "I think what social media is doing is allowing surgeons to create their own brand. Everyone has their own brand. It's not as good as Nike, but everyone has their own brand. I think [social media] is giving you a platform to express your brand whatever that may be."

Whether an author is writing a paper on disc replacements or awake spinal fusion, Dr. Sharan is hoping to use social media to help them outline their argument in a meaningful way. He believes social media has the power to boost bidirectional communication among surgeons and lead to greater innovation and impact across the spine field.

"Every author has a story they're trying to tell; disc replacement is better than spinal fusion or 'x' is better than 'y.' They're trying to tell their story in some scientifically explicit manner and it comes out as a paper," Dr. Sharan said. "It's important as part of the peer-review process to make sure we're putting together scientific papers, but I think now with social media it's really important that you get that bidirectional communication as another layer of peer review," he added.

Tasked with increasing the social media presence of Clinical Spine Surgery, Dr. Sharan began using social media's visual capabilities to distill down arguments in papers and translate them to generate discussion to a wider audience. 

"For example, disc replacements can be done in an ASC and here's the reasons why," Dr. Sharan said. "Ultimately, what I'm hoping to achieve is to extract what the author is saying and post it in a visually appealing manner. It's been amazing to see how that's been growing based on the data of the posts."

Dr. Sharan has been scheduling social media posts and monitoring the data to see what platforms work best for creating discussions online. He is experimenting with LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and is reaching roughly 5,000 people per week across all platforms.

He found that LinkedIn is the platform that generates the most engagement from spine surgeons, but the Facebook's reach is far greater, allowing him to connect with more international spine surgeons.

In Dr. Sharan's practice, he has been posting intraoperative and postoperative videos of awake spinal fusion surgeries — a procedure he has been performing since 2017 — to illustrate its safety and efficacy. He successfully performed his 100th awake spinal fusion in July, where patients are put under spinal regional anesthetic, and social media has helped expand the reach of the procedure in his practice. 

"Not only are we doing outpatient lumbar fusions, but we're doing them in such a manner that about 70 percent of our patients are off of narcotics after one week," Dr. Sharan said. "I want people to realize that it can be done safely."

He is currently developing a peer-to-peer "prehabilitation" program so that patients who have had the surgery can educate patients about the operation and coach them on preparation and recovery.

Dr. Sharan sees a big opportunity for social media on the patient side, although it hasn't been cracked yet. 

"My hope is that I can help generate discussions and increase the reach of clinical spine surgery," he said. "Ultimately, my goal on social media is to be the voice of spine surgery, at least on LinkedIn."

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