Dr. Mikhail Varshavski — better known as Doctor Mike — is a family medicine physician.
But you most likely don’t recognize him from your last annual checkup. Chances are, you’ve scrolled past him on your feed when checking in on social media.
The 27-year-old has risen to Instagram stardom over the past three years, and is now known for his fashion sense (when he’s not donning a white coat), dashing good looks and his adorable dog, Roxy, a Husky who has an impressive 34,000 followers of her own.
Once a medical student simply documenting the day to day life of a resident, Dr. Mike has now racked up 2.6 million followers and counting. It’s clear that he has cracked the code to building a personal brand that people recognize, relate to and trust. So we picked his brain on staying true to yourself, being a constant work in progress and his advice for defining your own personal brand — and maybe gaining a few Instagram followers in the process.
Was it always your dream to be a doctor?
I was introduced to medicine at a fairly young age, because my dad was [a doctor]. I fell in love with the field because I saw the relationship that my father had with his patients. It showed me that you can have a great career, with great earning potential and great job security, but also do something magnificent for the world. Family medicine was a field where I thought I could make the biggest change in my patients' lives, not only through prescribing medicines and curing illnesses, but through prevention [by encouraging] exercising more, eating healthier, following a healthier sleep schedule ... When you make those kind of changes in someone's life, and you can instill those changes at a young age on top of that, you can make a huge difference.
This is a means to an end: I can use my looks to educate people and get people excited about medicine.
When did you first decide to start documenting your life on social media?
A unique change and unexpected turn happened in my life during my first year of residency. I was not a person who you would find on social media traditionally, but when I was introduced to Instagram, I saw it as a way to show other medical students on their journey that you don't have to give up your life to study medicine. The stigma that you can't have a life in medical school was a fallacy and I was the living proof of that. So, I used Instagram as a platform to show my everyday life, to show what it's like to be buried in a book one day, at a fashion party the following day and to have a really grueling workout the next. It surprised people, so I got a lot of followers over the course of three years.
How did the ‘hot doctor’ persona come about?
In late 2015, Buzzfeed did a story about how I had this immense popularity on social media. But it wasn't a story about how I've written medical articles that are published in some of the greatest medical journals or that I was the youngest doctor in my hospital. It was because I was labeled ‘the hot doctor’ with a beautiful husky.
Were you uncomfortable at first as being labeled “the hot doctor”?
I had to pause for a moment. It threw me, because I was working so hard to become a professional. It was easy to view this as a superficial platform. I was faced with a crossroads where I had to make a decision: Am I going to accept this title of sexy doctor? Or am I going to continue down the path of being a strict professional and just doing what I do without the media's blessing? I thought there was a possibility for a middle ground.
Did embracing the label change your brand strategy?
With over 300 billion people on social media, there's definitely an impact that doctors can have on their patients through social media.
I decided to use my social media to inspire changes in the younger population. I'll educate them through YouTube videos, through Instagram posts, because in reality medicine is in a competition for people's attention. And that competition is Kim Kardashian. That competition is Justin Bieber. And it's tough to compete with celebrities that are entertainers. So, I [decided] to use my social media as a platform to entertain, to use what gifts I have gotten in being someone that's able to manage time well, go to fashion events, stay in great shape, and use my looks to my advantage to capture people's attention. But then give them something meaningful that they can do to impact their lives. Doctors aren't using social media to promote their business in the way that I am. With over 300 billion people on social media, there's definitely an impact that doctors can have on their patients through social media.
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I want to show you that I'm a person, too. I have made mistakes in training my dog. I spend time with family. I am overworked sometimes. I'm tired sometimes. I'm sleepy sometimes. And social media allows me to show you that I'm human, too. And, when you see that that person is human, you see the way their mind works, you have that transparency, you have now created trust and a really healthy doctor-patient relationship.
What role does luck play in building a brand that has 2.5 million Instagram followers?
Luck does play a huge role in whatever field you're practicing, whether that's medicine, acting, singing; but the way you make luck work for you is you constantly put yourself in a position to get lucky. In order to be in that position, you have to work really hard. Yes, some may say that the BuzzFeed article came at the right time, and I got lucky. But I can easily look at it the other way: It came during the worst time, during my most stressful hours, where I had no time to do media. If it came a year after residency, when I had my office in place, when I had time to do media appearances, I could have taken advantage of it that much more. But I worked hard on my social media platforms, I went to medical school, I've did my research, I kept my social contacts alive. When you put in that work, any little piece of movement towards the positive will look like luck. That luck is always out there. Don't chase it, but be prepared for it. And, when you're prepared, luck will get you where you need to be.
Are you ever worried that Instagram will cheapen your brand? Or make people see you as a less respectable doctor?
I've always battled those that sort of "judging a book by its cover" approach. I am an immigrant. First, they didn't think I was smart because I didn't speak English. Then, they thought I wasn't smart because of the way I dressed. Now, people jump to conclusions because I have selfies on Instagram. I've always been a fan of proving people wrong. And that continues to this day on Instagram. I find this a means to an end, that I can use my looks, I can use my popularity to educate people, to get people excited about medicine, and I look forward to continually proving people wrong.
You say you used to be very shy. How did you overcome the barriers that stood in the way of spreading your message?
I nerded myself out of being a nerd. I read books on what it takes to talk to the opposite sex. I read books on what it takes to win friends and influence people.
When I was in high school, I was very focused on my studies and I wasn't popular with girls. I wasn't the valedictorian. I worked hard for my grades. I didn't have the best attention. I wasn't organized. I didn't pay attention to the way I dressed. And then, when college rolled around, I said, "This isn't fair. I am so disadvantaged because I'm unable to speak in a public setting. If I see a beautiful girl across the room, [I am unable] to come up to her and open a conversation.” I had to change that about myself. So I nerded myself out of being a nerd. I studied. I read books on what it takes to talk to the opposite sex. I read books on what it takes to win friends and influence people, a great book by Dale Carnegie. I really just found out that it's all about putting yourself outside of your comfort zone and learning that it's okay to mess up.
What did you learn in the process?
We're humans. Everyone makes mistakes. When you're comfortable with failure, you become more comfortable with success. And that's really what I learned through this journey. And it wasn't an easy journey, because, things changed. I moved around. I came from another country. In medical school, you're constantly bouncing around rotations. So, first days and first-day jitters were always a part of what I was doing. And that's not even including things that have happened in my personal life.
What sort of setbacks did you overcome in your personal life?
During my first year of residency I lost my mom to cancer. It was a very difficult moment in my life. My father was tremendously impacted by this. So, while I was studying to become a doctor, I had to move back in with my dad to give him that support. And that's where Roxy, my Husky, sort of brought me some of my fame. All of this was about getting through struggles. Never have an excuse why you can't succeed. If anything, these moments can help you become a better person. I view my mom's loss as a learning experience that now I can bring to my patients.
What would you say your brand is?
My brand is fun and interesting, easy-to-understand medicine. My name is Mikhail Varshavski, but "Doctor Mike" is more brand-friendly. It's easier to understand. It has more mass appeal. And some people might say, "Well, aren't you selling out by trying to get mass appeal?" I think not. Because, the more mass appeal I have, the more people I'm able to reach with my type of medicine. It's about taking the good-quality evidence but dressing it up in a pretty suit, making it pretty or fun to watch. There's a lot of noise. And noise presents itself in a very shiny outfit. And what my job, as a doctor is, knowing that through evidence this is what works, I have to make this seem shiny. So, that's what I do. I'm on mass appeal, but for good-quality medicine. And that's what the whole approach of all my social media platforms is.
Luck is always out there. Don't chase it, but be prepared for it. When you're prepared, luck will get you where you need to be.
With 300 billion people on Instagram, how can other people create a brand that stands out?
Stay true to yourself. I'm a firm believer in knowing yourself first. I believe it so much that I have it tattooed on my body. I have one tattoo: "Know thyself" in Latin on my upper back. I believe that, before you do anything in this life, before you decide who you're going to date, before you decide what job you pursue, what education you pursue, you need to know yourself. If you are truly trying to make a brand for yourself, you have to stay true to what your strengths and passions are. So, find out what your strengths are. Find out what your passions are. Find a mix in between, and do something no one's ever done before, and don't take no for an answer.
What is your prescription for building a successful personal brand?
The prescription is that you need to stay true to what you do. You need to take a hard, hard look at yourself, and see if what you're doing is truly what you love doing; but does it also fit your talents? Does it fill your skill set? Are you able to bring something innovative, something new? As long as you feel that you're doing what's true to you and you're taking advantage of your skills, nothing can stop you. Yes, luck will be a factor; but luck will only be a factor if you're prepared for it. So, stay prepared. Be open-minded. And stay ready for luck to take you the rest of the way.
Do you need social media to do it?
My message is not for everybody to suddenly come onto social media and show their lives, and do exactly what I've done. The reason why I've done this is because this is where my passions and my talents aligned. So, I was the guy on social media. It doesn't mean that you have to be. Everyone has a role. Certainly, the fact that everyone's a publisher and everyone can disseminate information rather quickly is great; but it doesn't mean that you have to be the person in front of the camera doing that talk. All it means is you have an opportunity for success. Take advantage of it, and use the ability for millions and billions of people to see your message [to your advantage].
Find out what your strengths are. Find out what your passions are. Find a mix in between, and do something no one's ever done before.
How do you get people to trust you and your brand?
The way that you gain trust is by really digging into someone's personality and seeing what they're like in all avenues. Does their message change depending on who they're talking to? Do they stay consistent-- on what their core values and core beliefs are? And, if they do change, do they give an honest and easy-to-understand answer? I give the same impression of who I am to the doctors I work with, to the nurses I work with, to my friends at home, to the viewers at home. And that's how you gain trust. Yes, because I wear the white coat and the stethoscope, I already get a little bit of trust because of my status. But I want to give you more than that.
How do you keep your message consistent among all the noise of social media?
The person that I am speaking to right now is the same person that's going to be talking to my friends later. I don't change. The way that I speak on television is the way that I speak at home. I give the same impression of who I am to the doctors I work with, to my friends at home, to the viewers at home. And that's how you gain trust. And, when you have that, and you're being true to yourself, all of this becomes easier. I don't have to put up a front. I don't have to say, "This is my brand," and separate myself from the brand. I act professional when I'm wearing my white coat, but also have moments where I can have a good time. And now, a brand has developed from that. Again, that brand came from me being myself, mixing my strengths with my passions. And, when you have all three, you get a pretty cool brand out of it.