Mikhail Varshavski has 1.8 million followers on Instagram. I know because, after meeting him at the American Image Awards, I checked. Why is this seemingly random guy, born in Russia, the most famous physician since Zhivago?
Well, have a look. That facial symmetry alone is enough to draw stares. His hair is luxuriant. His biceps, forged in a boxing ring, are extraordinary. And he has a very nice smile.
Physician, ‘gram thyself.
“I started my Instagram about three years ago just trying to show a lifestyle of what it’s like to go through medical school, go through residency, and train to become a doctor,” Varshavski told me.
One of his goals, he said, was to show the world that there’s more to being a medical professional than wearing a stethoscope and having bad handwriting. “I’ve always lived a really balanced lifestyle,” he said. “I went to fashion events, I played sports, I boxed. People really didn’t understand, because there’s this stigma out there that to be a doctor you have to give up your life and your hobbies. I wanted to prove everybody wrong.”
Named People magazine’s “Sexiest Doctor Alive” last year, the 26-year-old has launched a foundation, is currently a resident, and has reportedly dated Miss Universe. (Take that, McDreamy.) His Instagram feed chronicles it all, from the $91,682 he raised for his own foundation by raffling off a date to a whirlwind of Fashion Week parties and speaking engagements.
Dr. Mike isn’t the only healer to discover social media. Dr. Michael Salzhauer has made an outsize name for himself as Dr. Miami on Snapchat, where he chronicles his cosmetic-surgery procedures. Varshavski takes a different approach, declaring he would never share patient information or practice medicine on social media.
Of course, with that bone structure, he doesn’t have to. We got his prescription for social-media fame.
Why did you get started with Instagram?
I wanted to show people that doctors are humans too. It’s important for us to be around other people — that way we can understand our patients better, rather than just walking into a room, barking orders, and walking out. It’s great that we know a lot, and it’s great that we know how to treat people, but if we can’t communicate with them, they’ll never follow our recommendations.
So you see all these selfies as a way of improving public health?
With over 1 billion people on social media, we have to adapt and move beyond television and traditional media. Doctors have a really big fear of looking unprofessional. I’ve always said that if you’re a professional person, you’ll never come off looking unprofessional, whether it’s social media or something else.
I really live my life openly. When I go and do speaking engagements at high schools and colleges — I just spoke at Columbia University two weeks ago — the biggest question that people are asking is whether I’m nervous that I’ll lose my accreditation as a physician for posting selfies and pictures at fashion events, which is labeled superficial. I always tell them absolutely not, because it shows my range as a human, which is what you are first.
So you see the feed as a complement to your work?
Yeah. One of the biggest effects I’ve seen is that more people are coming to see me, when in the past they would have never gone to see a physician from a preventative standpoint. Because of that, we are now catching early cancers so they can be treated. That’s amazing; selfies are catching cancers early. I never thought I’d be able to say that.
It’s all because I’m relatable. They see a photo of my dog and think, He has a dog, I have a dog, maybe we have something in common. Otherwise, they see a vision of a doctor that’s painted from back in the day where doctors are superior to the patient. But now we are a team. I educate them and ask them what decision they would like to make instead of just telling them what to do.
Do you take all of your own photos?
It’s mostly me. Occasionally I’ll have one of my friends take a picture of me doing something, but it’s all kept in the family. I don’t have a photographer or something like that. It’s all either myself or my close friends.
And what’s your stance on Photoshop?
I mean, I do some minor editing and throw on filters or change colors so a photo looks a little crisper. Outside of that I don’t do much.
And what’s the most pictures you’ve ever taken to get that perfect shot?
Maybe 40. I like to take photos with my dog, and sometimes he doesn’t always pose correctly. So yeah, around 40 or so.
And how much time are you devoting to this? I would assume you already have a pretty busy schedule.
Actually, posting photos and liking other photos is a very small amount of time. But what sort of eats up my time is interacting with fans and speaking at schools. Right now I’m going around and basically talking with students about how they should think outside of the box and not be one-dimensional. That’s where a majority of my time goes.
And how has this affected your personal life? Tell me about the girls who try to slide in your DMs.
Maybe a year ago, when I had 100,000 followers, I actually met people and did go on dates. One of my ex-girlfriends, we met through mutual friends, but then we actually exchanged a lot of messages through Instagram. So it definitely serves as a social network outside of looking at pictures. It really serves as a form of communication.
The amount of messages that I get on a daily basis now — it’s impossible to keep up with them all. I can only imagine what’s in my message request box.
Do you not read them anymore?
Occasionally when I need a good laugh I’ll peek in there.
Any themes to these communications?
One theme I’ve noticed is women saying they are going to hurt themselves in order to come see me in the hospitals. They’ll throw themselves down the stairs, they’ll break their arms, whatever it may be. The thing that is the most ironic about it is, I focus on preventative care. So people come to see me when they are healthy to stay healthy and avoid getting sick. People don’t have to get sick or hurt themselves to come see me.
Ever have fans set up appointments and then hit on you during a checkup?
Well, it’s interesting because, being a physician, ethically you’re not allowed to date patients. So if a patient does come into my office, they are automatically out of the dating pool with me. I take my work very seriously, not only with that but also with their privacy. I’ll never post pictures with patients or their information in the photos. So even though I don’t mind having a good time and making light of many situations that happen in the hospital, I always make sure my professional side shows.
You must have been tempted now and then …
No, not really. There’s certainly patients that do come in and flirt with you and try to make moves, but I always manage to redirect the conversation back to their health. I appreciate the compliment. I grew up a really big nerd, so anyone telling me that I’m a good-looking guy I still don’t believe.
A huge nerd, actually. Very little female attention.
That’s a little hard to believe.
Being a young doctor, now I’m getting female attention, having grown into myself and starting to work out. But in high school I was six-foot-three, 130 pounds, really awkward, just studying a lot. I didn’t really know how to communicate; I was very shy. And right out of high school I got in a seven-year combined medical program. Eventually, I read a lot of books about how to talk to the opposite sex, how to communicate in general and be more confident. I was never a good public speaker, but now I’m doing speaking gigs all across the country. All of this has come to fruition because of hard work.
So you nerded yourself out of being a nerd?
That’s a great way to put it, actually — I studied how to not be nerdy.
Are you concerned about seeming vain?
I think that works in two ways. There’s certainly people out there that are unhappy with their current situation and will look for negativity anywhere, whether it’s with someone like me in the popular spotlight or anyone else. But I also think I have a big population of people who see through that and see that I’m doing something positive instead of just trying to monetize it and sell weight-loss supplements. We’re catching diseases early. We’re vaccinating people who normally wouldn’t get vaccines, but they trust me because of my social media. I think that’s something that hasn’t been brought to the medical field before.
But you’ve got to admit, posting pictures of yourself all day is a little vain, no?
Absolutely not. Actually, the pictures are so rare and infrequent. If you ask my co-workers, who spend hours with me in the hospital, I don’t think they’ve ever seen me take a selfie. This isn’t something where I’m walking around the hospital just taking selfies. If someone takes a good photo of me I’ll definitely throw it up; if a friend comes around with a great camera we’ll goof around with it. But it’s not a case of “Oh, I’m such a good-looking guy, I need more photos of myself.” In fact, my agent and publicist always yell at me that I’m not taking enough photos of myself.
Dr. Mikhail Varshavski is a second-year resident at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey.