8 years ago, I started blogging about a deadly infectious disease which was sweeping across the globe, offering my perspective as a doctor battling the scourge from the frontlines.
The site gained momentum after being featured by a prominent newspaper. Hundreds of international visitors dropped by daily, offering sympathy, encouragement and prayers.
But with this goodwill came an unexpected side effect: the wrath of the healthcare authorities, who found my posts a little too revealing for their liking, and who felt that the best course of action was to shut the blog down.
After a series of exchanges between key administrative figures - I was completely left out of the communication loop - it was finally decided that I could keep posting, but had to amend or delete certain details that were deemed too 'sensitive' for public consumption.
I certainly didn't agree with their assessment, and strongly felt that any form of censorship - especially the omission of information which wasn't compromising from a medical standpoint - not only defeated the purpose of blogging, but also betrayed the readers who deserved to know the truth.
Eventually, I opted to follow orders to keep the site safe, but my cover was blown, and the issue of online vulnerability became a major deterrent in future blogging pursuits.
Medical blogs have proliferated in the past decade, and while many find the practice of medicine fascinating ( exhibit #1: bestseller lists, exhibit #2: TV show ratings ), keeping a public journal about your day-to-day workplace activities is vastly different from authoring a book or churning out a script.
A manuscript undergoes repeated editing and revision, but blog entries aren't always subjected to such stringent vetting. Even those of us who practise self-regulation ( mostly in order to preserve patient confidentiality ) tend to let loose when discussing the more emotional aspects of our jobs.
I was struck by something I read in Ada Calhoun's personal essay, I Can Find Out So Much About You:
"...it's incredibly easy to inflict pain on other people online, and it can be devastating to find yourself the recipient of online aggression.
Because here's the weird thing about online bullying: Humiliating someone online is way easier than doing it face-to-face. Often, it feels like nothing at all."
Incredible as it may sound, doctors are easy prey for Internet bullies. I say this from personal experience garnered from almost a decade of blogging. It doesn't matter if everything in a particular entry is 100% true. If I complain about an unpleasant patient encounter, comments about how "all doctors are arrogant and rude" appear the next day. If I criticize the bureaucratic nature of the healthcare system, I get lambasted for "receiving a fat paycheck every month".
Testing the hypothesis that I was being cyber-stalked, I set up a group blog with other physicians, with similar results. In fact, a larger following seemed to aggravate the hostility even further, and this was not helped by the fact that one of my fellow bloggers is far more hot-headed than I am.
We escaped scrutiny only when we chose 'soft topics', but again, that contradicted all our objectives, and better judgment prevailed.
My search for an alternative writing outlet with a readily accessible audience led me to Open Salon. And though I now enjoy the freedom to express myself without the risk of exposing my true identity, I also realize that one cannot catalyse change if nobody knows who you are or whom you work for.
As for whether doctors take creative licence with their online portrayals like most normal human beings - they do so in equal, if not greater, measure.
Blogging, for all its myriad reasons, remains a primarily egoistic pasttime. There is absolutely no point to it if no-one reads what we write. I dare any blogger to swear that s/he doesn't monitor the site counter religiously. And positive comments are just...absolutely...intoxicating, aren't they? :)
I suppose there's no real harm in painting oneself in a stream of rainbow colors, but when I know a doctor-blogger personally, and see the massive discrepancy between his online version of events and what actually happened, integrity ( or lack thereof ) becomes a great concern. Because if a person who makes life-and-death decisions everyday has no qualms about misrepresenting himself, it borders on sociopathy.
Despite the restrictions imposed by authorities, my contributions to the group blog have not wavered, and I am grateful to have like-minded partners in this enterprise. And while I come from a region that does not boast a First Amendment, medical blogging will always remain a passion of mine.
If I get busted again, I'd like to think there're people out there who will fight for our cause. :)