ACR Bulletin

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Advocating for Change, One Laugh at a Time

This year's Moreton Lecturer entertained and informed with stories about how he turned his healthcare struggles into advocacy efforts on social media.
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But they can't control social media, and I think it bothers them. Because that's the one thing they care about: public opinion.

—William E. Flanery, MD
June 22, 2023

In today’s digital age, the ability to relay information through the click of a button has allowed people to use various social media platforms to create messages, gain support and make an impact in their communities. Medical professionals are one community that has embraced social media as a tool for advocacy. From surprise billing to high healthcare costs, some medical professionals have found a way to use digital platforms to advocate on key policy issues.

One of those professionals is William E. Flanary, MD, an ophthalmologist who has used his personal medical scares and background in comedy to create TikTok videos on patient issues in medicine to advocate for positive change.

Flanary, also known as Dr. Glaucomflecken, kicked off the Moreton Lecture at ACR 2023 by sharing how he got his start in stand-up at a local comedy club. The more he performed, the better he got, and he seriously considered pursuing it as a profession. After seeing other aspiring comedians fail to advance in the field, however, he decided instead to become a doctor. Flanary went to Texas Tech University to complete his undergraduate studies, where he met his wife. The two of them decided to go together to graduate school at Dartmouth.

Despite his carefully determined life plans, a string of medical emergencies soon began to force Flanary to reevaluate his life. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer twice, which led to mounting personal stress. After his first diagnosis, Flanary said he felt as if the rug was pulled from underneath him as he sat in waiting rooms with people over twice his age.

To push through the fear and sadness that came with his illness, Flanary found a crutch in an old hobby of his – comedy. Using humor to talk about his experiences was a way to cope. “I started writing material and performing at comedy clubs, and found that just talking about this experience with cancer helped,” Flanary said.

I always encourage physicians, residents and medical students to have a social media presence because our voices have weight on social media, our voices matter to people.

—William E. Flanary, MD

Humor allowed him to express his feelings, have a laugh about them and take back control of his life. When he received his second diagnosis, he decided to use social media to produce comedy skits and reach a wider audience. His posts quickly gained popularity.

Four years later, Flanary suffered cardiac arrest in his sleep, which began to open his eyes to other issues for patients — and new topics for his videos.

His healthcare issues also led to mounting medical expenses. Flanary shared how the doctors who took care of him were out of his insurance’s network, which caused bills to be very expensive. The experience led him to shift his comedic stylings toward parodying healthcare insurance companies, using his social media platform to advocate for change within the system.

When Flanary began to create content about prior authorization, he noticed that insurance companies got upset. That meant his voice was being heard.

“These companies, they’re experts at lobbying Congress and legislators,” Flanary said. “But they can’t control social media, and I think it bothers them. Because that’s the one thing they care about: public opinion.”

Flanary noted that audiences responded to his videos and decided to join him in advocating for change. After his videos inspired other physicians to write letters to Congress and lobby for reform, one insurance company pulled back its policy on requiring prior authorization before cataract surgery.

“I always encourage physicians, residents and medical students to have a social media presence because our voices have weight on social media, our voices matter to people,” Flanary told the audience. “It’s going to be a collective effort for them, not only talking on the Hill, but also talking on social media by getting in conversations, telling stories from their own lives and their patients’ lives.”

The whole experience showed Flanary how powerful advocacy on social media can be. He left the ACR 2023 crowd with a message of encouragement: that advocacy is a collective effort, and together, we can raise awareness to continue to help patients.

To see more photos from ACR 2023, view the full magazine online.

Author Alexander Utano  editorial assistant, ACR Press