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Faculty & Staff Spotlights

Aaron Carroll reaches out on YouTube, traditional media to educate public on health

Aug. 28, 2014

With Lego scale models of a Star Wars Star Destroyer and Death Star on his filing cabinets and shelves filled with colorful books whose titles exclaim, "Don't Swallow Your Gum!," it's clear from his office on the fourth floor of the Health Information and Translational Sciences Building that Aaron Carroll, M.D., isn't your average physician-scientist.

Aaron Carroll

Aaron E. Carroll, M.D., in an episode of the YouTube series, Healthcare Triage.

The book is one of three in a series on medical myths written by Dr. Carroll and a colleague. The other playful knick-knacks reflect the high energy and wide interests that inform not only his role as associate dean for research mentoring at the IU School of Medicine but also a heath care policy blogger, radio personality, YouTube star and New York Times contributor.

"The book, the blog, the show, they're all about the same thing: They're all about trying to disseminate and explain research and health policy to the public," said Dr. Carroll, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the school. "They're all about using different media and different means to disseminate information to people about how good research and good evidence and good data can inform the ways we think and the ways we do things."

Last month, Dr. Carroll's Internet fame reached a new level after a video on common misconceptions about sex -- also the theme of his third mass market book -- went "viral," earning more than 2.6 million views since being posted July 9.

The piece was produced by the same company that creates videos featuring YouTube star and young adult author John Green, an Indianapolis resident whose book-turned-movie, "The Fault in Our Stars," hit the big screen this summer. Green recorded a popular video last year that credited information from Dr. Carroll's health care policy blog, "The Incidental Economist." After a follower connected the two on Twitter, they learned they lived in the same city.

"John invited me to get coffee, and we talked about how nobody on YouTube was creating videos on health care. He asked if I would be interested -- but I had no idea at the time that he wanted me to be the one in the videos!" said Dr. Carroll, who now records about one clip a week for "Healthcare Triage," a web series shot in Green's studio in Broad Ripple.

Also growing out of the blog was an invitation to contribute to the New York Time's new data-driven journalism venture, "The Upshot," for which he and his blogging partner, Austin Frakt of Boston University, now write regular columns on health care research and policy. But despite his current byline in a national newspaper, Dr. Carroll jokes that when he started blogging, "not even my family read it."

Over the past five years, Drs. Carroll and Frakt, who combined their blogs after independently launching similar projects, worked to increase their readership, including journalists and policymakers looking for reliable sources on health care as the Obama administration rolled out of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

"I just felt like I wanted to say something," Dr. Carroll said about his motivation to blog. "I know about studies published months or even decades ago because they're important to my work. When policy issues come up, or when topics get in the news, I can go back and find research --  even when it's not brand new -- and then bring it back into the conversation and explain why it's important, why it's relevant and why people should pay attention to it."

Dr. Carroll's expertise on health care policy has also garnered a number of appearances on national media, including an interview on the Comedy Central faux news show, "The Colbert Report," in 2009. He also maintains regular radio gigs on "Sound Medicine," produced at NPR affiliate WFYI in Indianapolis, and "Stand Up! With Pete Dominick" on Sirius Satellite Radio, where he answers questions on health care every Wednesday.

Although academic and media discussions about health may seem far apart, Dr. Carroll says they both have the same goals: to dispel misinformation and promote fact over fiction. His first successful attempt at public communication about health -- the books about medical myths -- even grew out of a scientific poster presented by a colleague and former fellow, Rachel Vreeman, M.D., associate research professor of medicine at the IU School of Medicine, at the 2007 Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting. He and Dr. Vreeman, also a prolific blogger, later co-published a paper based on a poster in the British Medical Journal, which led to a book deal with St. Martin's Press.

As director of the IUSM Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research and an investigator on the Child Health Improvement through Computer Automation system, Dr. Carroll's academic work also emphasizes the importance of paying attention to data -- specifically figuring out how to use evidence-based research to inform physicians' behaviors and improve patient outcomes.

"I love to do research," he said. "I've got this job not because of the blog or the Times column or the YouTube show, but because I try to do good work and get published.

"But I'm also trying to take it and run the rest of the way. I think there's a big need to go that next step and communicate results. It's been rewarding, it's been fun, and there's been a hunger for it in the real world, which, for a long time, I never fully appreciated."

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