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Dr. John Whyte: “Stories are powerful”

Stories are powerful. — We often get caught up with statistics and data, and we lose people along the way. But stories — that’s what keep a reader’s attention. After a couple of failures, I learned that I’d get more people to learn about health conditions such as diabetes by telling the journey of someone like them who developed […]

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Stories are powerful. — We often get caught up with statistics and data, and we lose people along the way. But stories — that’s what keep a reader’s attention. After a couple of failures, I learned that I’d get more people to learn about health conditions such as diabetes by telling the journey of someone like them who developed diabetes, rather than throwing a whole bunch of facts at them.


As a part of my series about leaders who are using their platform to make a significant social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. John Whyte, the Chief Medical Officer of WebMD.

Dr. John Whyte has been communicating important health topics to the public for nearly 20 years. Most recently, he has deployed WebMD’s numerous platforms to educate us about the strategies and tools we need to live with the coronavirus in a way that supports our mental and physical well-being. He truly believes that better information leads to better health.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/0f984dbeca6fb56896bf1116c33915cf


Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Whyte! It is an honor. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I never thought I would be working in the media and communication worlds. I always thought I would be a Department Chair, or a Medical School Dean working on health policy issues and doing clinical work. Early on in my career, I was working at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, when I met Dr. Mehmet Oz — before his Oprah fame — and he convinced me to spend some time with Discovery Channel to create health documentaries. I remember saying to him, somewhat dismissively, “I do policy. Why would I want to do television?” His response to me was that I could reach many more people on important health issues through television. He suggested I do it for a year, and if I didn’t like it, I could call it my sabbatical. Well, I stayed nearly a decade and made nearly one hundred documentaries and over a thousand digital shorts. The experience taught me how to educate the public on important health topics like heart disease and cancer, but also how to entertain them. It has helped me in every job since then! Sometimes people think I am a communicator, but I view myself as a policy person who has learned how to engage different audiences.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

I had the most amazing opportunity working on a documentary about diabetes where over a short period of a couple of months, I literally circumnavigated the globe, travelling to every continent except Antarctica. What made it special was I went into people’s homes and offices, visited with their families, and told their personal stories about living with diabetes. These experiences reinforced the cultural differences in how we view health. For instance, in India — to be “big” was to be powerful. It showed you were successful because you were able to eat and feed your family. People were not concerned about obesity and its relationship to diabetes and other diseases. In brazil, no one wanted to hear about going to the gym; rather, it was about the role of dance in staying active. Sometimes we become so myopic in thinking how we view health is how everyone else views health. If you want to improve health, you need to first understand how people perceive it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure it was a funny mistake in terms of humorous but rather funny in that I simply didn’t know my audience. I remember making these highly technical, medical documentaries carefully parsing every word. I thought they were terrific, but no one was watching them. I didn’t appreciate that I had to know my audience and realize that I wasn’t the typical viewer. A good friend who was a producer took me aside one day and explained that I was putting too much information in them. He remarked, “It like you’re teaching a medical school class. Your shows are boring!” When people turn on the television, they want to be entertained. When they search health content, they want to read it without needing a dictionary next to them. It made me totally rethink how I communicate health information.

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Let’s be honest — failures are incredibly disappointing and painful. At first, it can make you less motivated but eventually it does makes you stronger. It’s truly how we learn and grow. I have had several conversations with Tim Tebow about the importance of resilience. He tells the story how he has learned much more from his failures than his successes. We all get knocked down, but we don’t let that moment define us. This is relevant as you embark on your career path. My advice is you need to take a chance; you need to take risk if you really want to have an impact. You won’t always hit a home run. I remember advice from Bob Blendon, who chaired the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health who quipped, “If you haven’t been fired at a job at least once, you’re not taking chances.” It’s ok to rock the boat sometimes. Otherwise, it’s easy to become complacent.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the core focus of our interview. Can you describe to our readers how you are using your platform to make a significant social impact?

At WebMD, we are trying to provide the best, most accurate information about health. We believe that better information will lead to better health. The COVID pandemic has taught us the importance of accurate information. People search online for their news as well as their health advice. During the summer, we were getting over 3 million page views a day on COVID topics. First it was symptoms, then testing, then reopening, and now treatments and vaccines. We responded to this search for information, and used the power of our brand to provide a vehicle for over 200 national thought leaders to discuss coronavirus in a thoughtful and productive way. We also catalogued important voices and amplified them to compete against misinformation. It wasn’t just our website but all our social media platforms, as well as our blog series and magazine. In so doing, we are impacting lives, helping the public separate fact from fiction. Better information leads to better health.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

Nearly every day, someone comments how the content on our website helped them improve their health. It’s very gratifying to receive this feedback, knowing that our work directly impacts someone’s health and wellness.

Was there a tipping point that made you decide to focus on this particular area? Can you share a story about that?

The tipping point occurred when we saw so much misinformation out there and knew that people were getting hurt from the misinformation. Whether it was the lack of evidence for hydroxychloroquine or the ingestion of bleach, we would immediately point out the inaccurate and harmful information. We recognized early-on had to combat the attack on science. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. Typically, we would say, “Do you understand science?” But now we also have to combat the idea of “Do you believe in science? There’s an infectious disease pandemic but there’s also an infodemic that threatens peoples’ health.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The first things we need to do is restore respect for science and scientists. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Anyone who has a twitter handle or YouTube channel is not an expert on infectious disease. There’s a reason why people study science and we need to hear their perspective. We also need to stop attacking the scientists when one doesn’t agree. Data isn’t always black and white and can be subject to interpretation. Debate the data without attacking the messengers. The second is we need to be transparent. One of the reasons people are so suspect about a vaccine is there is no transparency. Granted, drug development is typically secretive by its very nature — but now is not the time for secrets. Make all the data available to everyone. Tell us what you know as well as what you don’t know. The third is we need to be consistent. Part of the challenge with the current pandemic is that messaging is all over the place — especially from some government officials. If you want to impact behavior, you need to say that same things, and not have five different leaders saying five different things.

What specific strategies have you been using to promote and advance this cause? Can you recommend any good tips for people who want to follow your lead and use their social platform for a social good?

Of course, one needs good validated content. It can’t be all opinion pieces. At same time, as part of the content, you need compelling interviews and stories. It has to be put into context — and that’s what we have been striving to do during this pandemic. Give practical advice — Help readers and viewers understand how this information relate to them and what can they do about it? What do they need to do today? Most members of the public don’t’ want to read a scientific paper. Distill it down to the 2 or 3 most relevant points.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Stories are powerful. — We often get caught up with statistics and data, and we lose people along the way. But stories — that’s what keep a reader’s attention. After a couple of failures, I learned that I’d get more people to learn about health conditions such as diabetes by telling the journey of someone like them who developed diabetes, rather than throwing a whole bunch of facts at them.
  2. Humor doesn’t cheapen content. — Everybody likes a good laugh. Yet in health — and pandemics — we take everything so seriously. Sometimes you get an important message out by being funny. For instance, you might want to remind people that it’s time to get a colonoscopy. Use a cartoon about poop and your web traffic will soar. I’m not kidding! Try some humor and see your results.
  3. Content has to be educational, but it also needs to be entertaining. — No one wants to read or watch a dry, boring piece of content that feel like it’s a medical school lecture. Rather, you get people to consume education more effectively by entertaining them. Think of creative ways to present it. I remember Eileen O’Neill, the President of Discovery Channel saying you know you have a hit, when you can turn the sound off and people still watch. In order to get people to consume content, think edutainment!
  4. Know your audience. — The same content doesn’t interest everyone. It’s all about targeting. Some types of health content will be of more interest to women and some will interest men more. Keep in mind your audience when you are designing information. There’s no “one size fits all.” I always ask writers who is their work primarily directed towards. When they say everyone, I know there’s going to be a problem.
  5. Repetition is good. — I used to think that I would cover an important health topic and then move on. It was almost like a making a check mark on the list and then moving to the next topic. This isn’t a good strategy if you want people to remember useful information. In order to have a big impact, you need to explain material in different ways and formats. Maybe one time it’s a video. Another time it’s a blog or a quiz. Sometimes you reinforce what you previously covered and other times you focus on new information. Don’t assume everyone pays attention the first time. A little repetition goes a long way.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The French have a phrase “N’attend pas le moment favorable. Cree-le.” Translated, it means don’t wait for the favorable moment, create it. Many of my jobs didn’t exist before I was hired. Several were created after discussions with senior leadership. I don’t think I actually filled out a formal application for a job in decades. Rather, I networked with people and talked about my goals and they talked about their goals. My advice to people is to instead of focusing on a specific job title, think about the type of work you want to do, what you want to accomplish and how that could work at a particular company or organization. Create your own dream job, cause sometimes dreams do come true.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Jeff Bezos is the Ultimate disruptor. Think how he revolutionized how we shop. It’s easy to say now that what he did seems obvious, but it wasn’t the case when he first started. Remember, he often could barely meet payroll early-on. He stayed true to his vision, and ultimately changed forever how we buy things. Jeff is now looking at healthcare, so it would be interesting to sit down and hear how he plans to disrupt it without being disruptive. And just in case he is reading this, we both live in the DC area –so lunch is pretty easy to set up. My treat!

How can our readers further follow your work online ?

You can follow me on twitter and instagram @drjohnwhyte and of course at WebMD

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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