Doctor Russell Faust on Thriving After Unexpected Career Shifts

Russell Faust, MD, PhD, is the CEO, Anicca Media, LLC and  CEO, Sacred Herbals, LLC and also serves on the Board of Directors of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine. He also blogs on his personal website, BoogorDoctor.com, as well as external blogs, such as HealthTap.com and PhysiciansPractice.com.

Russell's present career was influenced by health restrictions, which pressured him to transition from his life working as a surgeon. His insights on leveraging genuine, professional expertise online, _, and _ below may help those who have to leave their chosen professions due to unexpected events develop new strategies, as well as anyone who wishes to build a more robust internet-focused career.

When and why did you start BoogorDoctor.com?

Russell FaustYou can find a little piece of the answer in my video, embedded on our Anicca Media site.

To summarize: I am trained as a pediatric otolaryngology-head & neck surgeon – an ENT. My clinical focus has been on helping children avoid surgery, and when surgery becomes necessary, I am a strong advocate of minimally-invasive surgery. That led me to help develop the Computer-Assisted Robotic Endoscopic Surgery program at Michigan Children’s Hospital. Basically, their robotic surgery program. And I published the first text on robotic surgery.

That is just my way of pointing out that I am, and have always been, a tech geek. I was using off- the-shelf software (Dragon Naturally Speaking; PaperPort; MS Word) to build my own electronic medical record of my entire practice, back around 12-13 years ago.

So naturally, when I became frustrated with the amount of garbage on the internet that poses as medical information, I turned to a tech solution.

Let me set the stage: new patients (and their parents, of course) were arriving at my clinic with big stacks of print-outs from the internet. Think about this paradox: I am delighted that these families are engaged in their child’s healthcare; they are empowered; they are taking an active role; they are becoming educated. Unfortunately, about 50% of the medical information on the internet is crap! Much of it is simply plr content that has been spun and re-spun, and put up on a site that is crammed with AdWords ads for link bait. That placed me in an awkward position for my first encounter with a new patient-family. I want to encourage their engagement and education. On the other hand, I was forced to gently tell them that much of their information was MIS-information. Then I needed to spend extra time in clinic re-educating them.

Boogor Doctor LogoMy “tech solution” was to start a blog and provide the proper medical information myself! Because I am a pediatric ENT doc, and my patients call me their “boogor doctor” (and then laugh hysterically). Naturally, my site is boogordoctor.com

I own every imaginable spelling of "boogordoctor" for domain names, but have stuck with the “all- O’s” version for simplicity: “spell it with all O’s” I can tell families.

That was three years ago in March. I started with simple definitions, have included articles like “what to expect when your child is scheduled for a sinus CT,” include a free library of downloadable pdf guides, and I try to include some basic anatomy and histology in my posts. I also include “integrative” remedies whenever possible; the value is that I also include the scientific support, with references to the original clinical trials when possible. People seem to appreciate having this information come from an MD/PhD with a background in science and academic medicine.

Even though you did not specifically ask, I can’t help but include these data: I originally intended this medical education blog site for my patients and their families. At most, I expected a couple hundred visits per month. Nevertheless, because there is such a lack of accurate medical information online, popularity has grown. There were 5,000 uniques per month at 1 year; 8,000 uniques per month at 2 years; and 20,000 uniques per month at 3 years!! I never imagined! My only regret is that I never ‘monetized’ the site. I sell a few eBooks that I have written, and have an affiliate account on Amazon, but all that barely covers the hosting expenses.

What got you started with Anicca Media? Why did you shift to digital media instead of some other niche of the medical world?

Because I am a tech geek, I have occasionally presented keynotes on the topics of optimization of patient care through technology; on EMRs; on robotic surgery; etc. This led to an invitation to consult for a marketing firm that had landed a healthcare system client. To everyone’s frustration, the hospital C-suite and the tech team were having some difficulty communicating. Someone had the bright idea that they needed a liaison – a translator – who understood both the tech side of things, and who also had experience running hospitals. Someone knew someone and I was invited to be that translator. It was cool. I felt as though I made a big contribution, and they were appreciative. After doing another similar consulting gig, the thought that I could build a business doing that occurred to me.

I looked around, realized that I knew someone (Dean Berg) with both a background in tech (software engineering) AND marketing, and we connected to found Anicca Media back in 2010. The third co-founder is our design chief, Christina Olson. Since they are both in the Boston area, our firm is officially headquartered there, despite the fact that I spend most of my time in Michigan. That said, it could be anywhere, as our clients are all over the country.

In my capacity as CEO of Anicca Media (pronounced “ah-KNEE-kuh,” which means “impermanent” or “ever-changing” in Sanskrit or Pali- we thought that described digital media pretty accurately), I present webinars, workshops, and keynotes on the importance of physicians and hospitals having a presence in the digital world. After seeing the benefits to both my own patients and my clinical practice, this is a topic I am passionate about! There is measurable ROI directly at the bottom line, but also intangible benefits for the patient/physician relationship. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Anyway, I could see the “handwriting on the wall” for my own surgical career: after my years of training for mountaineering (specifically, running with a weighted backpack), I have trashed my back. So, as I foresaw my surgical career winding down, further developing Anicca Media seemed like a good option.

Should someone need to shift out of one’s job, but still want to work in the same industry, how should one go about looking for entrepreneurial opportunities? What was your personal strategy on this front?

I can really only speak to those in medicine. The beauty of our training for medicine is the diversity of backgrounds. For example, in my own medical school class (University of Minnesota) we had a fair number of people who had been nurses; quite a few people who had been concert-level musicians or who had seriously considered careers in rock bands (we actually talked one of my class-mates out of dropping out of med school to play electronic drums in a band; I hope he doesn’t regret that); a huge number of engineers; a large number of people in the fine-arts; one astronaut; and a large number of people who had earned their PhD degrees before applying to medical school. Clearly, these people have a wide variety of interests. Even if they were to leave their clinical practices, but wanted to remain in healthcare, they would have many different opportunities. I have been involved with the SEAK folks for a long time; take a look at them for non-clinical careers.

In my opinion, the biggest deficit in our education is a paucity of formal business training. And, unfortunately, medicine has now become big business. I think of it not as health care, so much as sick care. And it is corporate now. Practices are being bought-up by hospitals, who are themselves merging and being acquired. Corporatized. Sorry – I could rant about this issue for hours!

My advice: people need to look to their strengths and interests. Just like considering which specialty to choose for their practice. Everyone needs to consider:

  1. their unique skill-set
  2. their specific interests

Folks in medicine possess a more diverse and far-ranging skill set than most. Ask, “What am I good at?” and “What do I love doing?”

In my own case, with a background in the fine arts followed by a 20-year history in academic medicine and a background as a scientist, my strengths include being a skeptic. I do the research when someone tells me about a remedy, determine whether there is any clinical evidence to back it up. Another strength I possess is writing. Combined, those talents lend themselves well to a medical education blog site that includes references to scientific evidence. For Anicca Media, my strengths are clearly my tech advocacy, my time in the C-suite (gives me great cred with hospital CEOs), and my been-there-done-that background of building websites and digital branding. My background in the arts seems to add value to our end product, too.

Also, the underlying theme to many of my activities is teaching. I love to teach; I am passionate about teaching patients, other physicians, other entrepreneurs. Knowledge is power.

When I left academic medicine, of course the thing I missed the most was interacting with my patients - "my kids" - and their families. But the thing I missed most after that was teaching: families, med students, resident physicians, colleagues.
So I am now guest faculty for the school of biz here at the local university - Oakland University School of Business, in the Executive MBA Program in Healthcare - and also contribute to their "think tank" on the future of medicine.
I think that others in medicine who consider moving out of clinical practice will find that their unique skill-set may be appreciated in various higher level graduate teaching programs, including law, medicine of course, business, nursing, the arts, and elsewhere.

What proportion of your income comes from affiliate sales through your blog vs. independent speaking engagements and workshops or work done through Anicca Media?

As I mentioned, one of my biggest regrets is that I have yet to properly monetize my blogs. The amount of income from affiliate links and eBook sales doesn’t even pay the monthly hosting fees for most months. All of my income is now through Anicca Media, paid speaking gigs, or paid board positions.

What occupies most of your time spent working with Anicca Media? What are the most popular services it provides?

Most of my time is spent developing content marketing strategies for clients. Our clients range from physicians who are in solo practice (yes, they still exist) to large hospitals, healthcare systems, and national medical boards. Because I had a background in the fine arts way before medicine (even back before science), and because I am a triple-type-A personality and micromanager (“control freak” is more like it), I spend way more time than I should on the graphic details of clients’ digital footprints. But it feels pretty good when I think we get it right.

Our differentiators include, well, me. We are the only digital branding agency with an MD/PhD who has spent time in the C-suite of hospitals. Medical clients who start off skeptical soon discover that we “get it” when it comes to their top priorities. We speak their language. For example, right now one of those top priorities is the “patient experience,” because their patient experience scores determine whether they get paid. It is a current hot topic in healthcare. We have been teaching workshops on optimizing the patient experience for a couple years now, and this is a big part of our Coaching Program.

That Coaching Program is another one of our differentiators, and is custom-tailored to the needs of our clients. Some hospital marketers want to focus their coaching on a specific social platform (for example, Facebook), whereas some practices want to be coached on the entire breadth of digital media to achieve their business goals. The entire program stands at 20 workbooks at this time. It is growing weekly. The coaching program includes workbooks, regular video-conferencing sessions to review topics, and sessions that focus on specific client interests. Anyone completing our entire Coaching Program would be considered a digital media “guru,” although I loathe that term.

Does additional work you do as an advisor and committee member for organizations within the medical industry (e.g. FairCareMD and the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine) at all affect your income level (e.g. through introduction to new business opportunities or clients)? Would you recommend that other aspiring entrepreneurs seek involvement in relevant industry groups to improve their professional prospects?

To be brief, YES! Those activities:

  • have resulted directly in paid clients
  • broaden your professional network
  • allow you to contribute to causes that you value and believe in
  • give you exposure as an authority in your field
  • allow you to help other entrepreneurs to succeed – good karma, baby!

Many people set out to create independent, alternative careers for themselves but do not know how to actually build an income that supports them. What actions have most significantly improved/guaranteed your income since you transitioned out of a career of working directly with patients?

Honestly, I have no idea, and I have no advice. I still don’t feel successful (YET!). Certainly, all of my activities have yet to provide an income that rivals my salary as a specialty-surgeon, and that may never happen. My advice is to be curious, be available, and be helpful. Because of those traits I have been recruited to join the c-suite by diverse enterprises ranging from Silicon Valley tech start-ups to academic university hospitals. I seriously considered a couple, and will continue to entertain offers. In the meantime, I continue to consult for such ventures to help optimize their success.

For now, I am thoroughly enjoying helping hospitals and medical practices better connect with their patient communities. That fulfills my drive to make a difference in medicine, to optimize patient care, and it makes good use of my odd skill-set. I am also helping a number of other entrepreneurs develop their presenting skills, or their educational sites or e-commerce sites; developing leadership in others is hugely satisfying. Now that I am getting to be an old geezer (relative to the kids like you who are starting tech companies), it is nice to help others avoid some of the mistakes I have made.