Demystifying the 'black box' of spine care online

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Philip Louie, MD, and Venu Nemani, MD, PhD, spine surgeons at Seattle-based Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, began leveraging social media a year ago to bridge the gaps in spine care education, specifically among professional athletes.

Their channel, TheAthleteSpine, has more than 21,000 YouTube subscribers and 3,400 Instagram followers. Posts and videos break down the details about athlete spine conditions and educate audiences about spine care. Spine surgeons, healthcare professionals and athletes are often featured for discussions.

Dr. Louie and Dr. Nemani shared the background of their social media ventures and how they've used their platforms to connect with others in spine surgery.

Note: These responses were edited lightly for clarity.

Question: How did TheAthleteSpine begin?

Dr. Philip Louie and Dr. Venu Nemani: The premise was simple. We both share a passion for spine care and sports! In talking to athletes suffering from spine injuries, watching SportsCenter, and reading various news updates, we realized that there was a large disconnect between spine injuries that athletes were suffering and the general public's understanding of those injuries and the expected timeline and prospects for recovery. Spine injuries seemed to be a bit of a black box! So, we thought it would be fun to bridge the enormous gap between athletes suffering spine injuries and the actual pathology, treatments, surgery and recovery. We wanted to share this platform with our surgeon colleagues, other professionals involved in healthcare and some of the athletes themselves. Learning from both perspectives seemed like it would be fun and educational. 

Q: What social media strategies have helped TheAthleteSpine grow?

PL and VN: We decided to target three popular social media platforms (from a social, educational and professional standpoint). Instagram serves as the front door to our YouTube channel. On Instagram, we can reach a large audience with news snippets, spine-related comedy, and brief educational elements to garner initial attention. We have also engaged our followers with various quizzes along the way. YouTube provides a platform where we discuss various spine injuries/surgeries in depth, and we also often host guest surgeons and athletes who can provide a unique perspective or expertise on various spine injuries and/or treatment. Our goal is to teach and inspire. LinkedIn bridges the two other platforms together and introduces a professional audience to our educational content. On each platform, we have tried to bring a consistency of teaching and descriptions with the unique flair that each guest provides — on both common and rare spine problems that are generally not well understood.

Q: How has reception been from patients and surgeons?

PL and VN: This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of TheAthleteSpine. Many surgeons have provided us with supportive comments and practical advice. In fact, we have become friends with surgeons that we did not previously know because they served as a guest on one of our episodes. One of our joys in spine surgery are the collaborations and relationships that we form with our colleagues. And TheAthleteSpine has served as an outlet for a "new-age" collaboration that has grown into research projects, conference presentations and clinical endeavors.

Patients often thank us for educating them about injuries and surgeries that they were often confused about. They laugh at our low production value and appreciate our attempts at providing some clarity on some of the struggles faced by many of our favorite athletes. For patients who have suffered from similar injuries and recovered from similar operations, our guests and dialogue have reminded them that they are not alone in their recovery from a spine problem. 

Q: What are your plans for the coming years? Do you plan to expand beyond YouTube?

PL and VN: We want to continue to find unique ways to educate our audience and new partners to collaborate with! We share a passion for education and providing a platform for others to share their experiences and knowledge. Our short-term goal is to continue bringing on surgeons and athletes to discuss a variety of spine injuries and both surgical and nonsurgical treatments. Long term, we would love to expand beyond YouTube to a more regular mainstream platform where we can provide a collection of current/real-time information on return to play in various sports following diverse spine injuries, treatments and operations. 

Q: What advice do you have for spine and orthopedic surgeons who want to integrate social media into their work more?

PL and VN: Using social media effectively and putting yourself behind a camera to present yourself to a wide audience involve very different skill sets than what we have trained for and practice every day as spine surgeons or orthopedic surgeons. Find a topic that you are passionate about, because the grind will be far more enjoyable. Consider how you can apply some of your social media efforts into your work and patient care. And lastly, find some people to go on the journey with —- as fresh eyes and honest perspectives are critical in a world where anyone is just one click (or swipe) away from your content.

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