An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that neurologist Anna Nordvig was among those who had reacted to Will Flanary's videos. This version has been corrected.
On TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, Flanary posts videos several times a week — for more than 1.6 million followers — about the medical system. Sometimes it’s a sarcastic look at coronavirus guidelines, an insider’s view of the medical hierarchy (nurses are the true rulers) or the expensive world of peer-review publishing. But mainly, the young, mellow-voiced doctor focuses on the strong personalities involved in everyday medical practice.
There are many YouTube “reaction” videos from doctors on Flanary’s assessments of their character — such as trauma surgeon David Hindin and neurosurgeon Martin Rutkowski — who say the portrayals are spot-on.
For nonmedical personnel, Flanary’s videos give insight and a few tips in dealing with a world most only see from the patient side. For example, neurologists may have a slight rage stroke hearing someone described as having an “altered mental status,” which they describe as “garbage terminology” because it could mean anything from slightly confused to comatose.
Flanary, 36, has been on both sides of the stethoscope. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer twice — the first time was when he was in his fourth year of medical school at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, and the second time while he was in his third year of residency at the University of Iowa. Then, on May 12, 2020, he went into cardiac arrest (not heart attack) and was saved by his wife, Kristin, who performed CPR. Flanary still doesn’t know what caused his heart to stop beating.
From his home in Portland, Ore., Flanary, who served as the Yale Medical School commencement speaker this year, talked about finding humor in the everyday, what he hears from other doctors and his side hack as a Cameo star. This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Q: How did this whole social media gig get started?
A: It’s been a little bit surprising, I’ve just done it as a creative outlet. I started doing the video format at the right time — especially with the pandemic, more people have been on online. It’s been a little bit surprising how popular the characters are — it’s taken on a life of its own.
Q: Why do you think it’s become such a hit, particularly for people outside the medical world?
A: They may not get some of the terminology, some of the jokes, but they get the personalities, and that resonates with people. That’s a big compliment to me, that people who are not in medicine still watch, because that tells me my acting skills are decent.
Q: A lot of the doctors you portray have very specific personality traits. What is an ophthalmologist’s personality?
A: We’re kind of boring. We don’t like to work for long periods of time. We love taking breaks. We really enjoy sitting down. That’s effectively a personality — “loves to sit down.”
Q: You wrote in your bio about doing stand-up, but never explained how you ended up becoming an ophthalmologist?
A: When I started med school at Dartmouth, everyone was assigned a random adviser, and my adviser was an ophthalmologist. It wasn’t until I was able to do a rotation in ophthalmology at the beginning of my fourth year that I made the decision, so I decided really late. It was the juxtaposition between my previous rotation, which was vascular surgery, where you’re standing for like six-hour cases, holding the retractor and you have really sick patients. And then there’s ophthalmology, where I get to sit down to operate. I get to go home at a reasonable time and develop meaningful relationships with my family. I like knowing there’s an end to my day when you get to go home.
Q: You made a video in March about “Match” day, where medical students “match” into residency, basically cementing their medical specialty. But your video focused on the students who don’t match, and how they’ll be okay. That garnered so many comments from students and doctors.
A: That’s a good example of one that surprised me. One thing I’ve learned is that the videos that get the biggest reaction are the ones where there is an emotional reaction. And those are the ones where there’s a lot of truth about a subject that’s a little bit more sensitive … people have a more of a reaction to it because they feel heard. [Not matching] is a really difficult thing to deal with, and I’m able to put it through a lens of humor.
Q: I watched some reaction videos from doctors. The trauma surgeon laughed really hard at the part where the “surgeon” tells the “medical student” he’s mad at the student for not being psychic. “It’s wrong, but it’s also true,” said the surgeon. How do you know the little idiosyncrasies so well?
A: Every specialty in medicine has a kind of personality, an essence, and they’ve been the same since the beginning of modern medicine. I don’t know if the specialty makes the personality or the personality is drawn to the specialty, it’s a chicken or egg kind of thing. I draw a lot on my experience from med school, and even though I’m 10 years removed from med school, things don’t really change — there’s always going to be the dynamic between surgery and anesthesia. Sometimes I’ll still have to do some research, so I’ll get on Reddit message boards and read what people love about being a neurologist or a cardiologist, so I’ll get a lot from that.
Q: Do you ever get any flack from doctors?
A: I never get backlash from surgeons. I’ve gotten the most backlash from family medicine/primary care doctors. They don’t like the portrayal of the some of them as overworked, underpaid sympathetic figure, always doing some sort of fellowship. They think that by portraying the character that way, I’m dissuading people from entering that field, which I don’t buy for a second. But it’s a minority — most people are just fine with it.
Q: What did you learn about being a doctor from being a patient?
A: It reinforced for me how important it is for doctors to show who they are from a personality standpoint. For a long time, there’s been this idea that it’s not professional to show that side of yourself as a doctor; that you’re supposed to be this emotionless machine and you can’t show that things affect you mentally, or make you angry or sad or laugh. Social media is a great way to show that side, because you can reach a big audience and it shows the public that we have things that suck about our job or that we hate health care, and it allows the general public to relate to us, and that’s something that’s been missing for a long, long time.
Q: I see that you are frequently hired on Cameo ($249) to send messages — usually congratulations on medical school acceptance but also for wedding anniversaries. How is that working out?
A: I’ve done more than 1,000 Cameos!
Q: Does your family think you’re as funny as everyone else does?
A: No! They’re all funnier than me.