Working Geek: Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson uses social media 'like a stethoscope' in public health ... .

Seattle Children's Hospital



Dr. Wendy Sue Johnson is chief of Digital Innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

It didn’t take long for Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson to realize that if she wanted to effectively provide a research-based alternative to the unfounded claims of Jenny McCarthy and others in the anti-vaccination movement, she wasn’t going to be able to do it one patient at a time.

By wielding social media, “moms and dads and activists were holding microphones,” she said, “and doctors weren’t.”

So in 2009, the Seattle Children’s Hospital doctor launched Seattle Mama Doc, the hospital’s first blog and perhaps the first pediatrician blog in the nation. Since then, Dr. Swanson has become chief of Digital Innovation at Seattle Children’s, a role in which she’s devising ways to use technology in healthcare communication and delivery. One of her recent initiatives was helping build an Alexa skill to provide parents with information about flu shots.

Dr. Swanson’s outreach includes posts on Twitter (she has nearly 39,000 followers), her podcast, her Instagram account, regular contributions to KING5 News and interviews for programs broadcast globally.

Some colleagues were initially dismissive of using social media to reach families and patients. She remembered telling a fellow doctor of her blogging plans in the late 2000s.

“He literally guffawed, laughed from his belly,” Dr. Swanson said. “I remember thinking, ‘No, this is legit.’”

Dr. Swanson said that she has worked hard to build trust with the public, and promote other health providers as well.

“I use media as a tool,” she said, “like a stethoscope.”

Dr. Swanson, who is a mother of two, is also chief medical officer of Before Brands, a California-based startup tackling the prevention of food allergies in children.

She’s glad to see technology companies finally stepping up and owning some responsibility for what health information — and misinformation — is being highlighted on their platforms. Amazon recently pulled two books from its site that tout unscientific and potentially dangerous “cures” for autism. Pinterest is blocking ant-vaccine search results and YouTube has removed revenue-generating ads from anti-vaccination channels. Facebook is making it harder to find specious vaccine theories and Swanson said she’s talking to the company about creating an advisory team to help police health hoaxes.

Dr. Swanson encourages others to step up and publicly speak out for science, including issues of vaccination and climate change, acknowledging that the responsibility of quashing dangerous misinformation extends beyond tech companies.

Dr. Swanson at work on a flu education campaign in December 2018. (Seattle Mama Doc Instagram Photo)

“The voice of the population can be heard through voting and through voice,” she said. “And more than ever before, you can use your voice to help shape a healthier population.”

We caught up with Dr. Swanson for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle, Seattle Children’s and, of course, all over. I travel more weeks than I don’t. Sometimes the thin air provides a huge blanket for blue-sky thinking, sometimes all I think about up in the air is getting home to my beautiful babies. Being a working mom can leave us ebullient and heartbroken at once.

Computer types: MacBook Air (old) that I now have returned to after my fancy new MacBook Pro both failed me saving some documents when Office corrupted and also hurt my hands and back moving it around. Honest to goodness, when you carry your computer around all day and all over the world, every ounce matters.

At the hospital I work on PCs. I find it remarkably awkward and uncomfortable. I was raised with that little Apple in my mouth and somehow I don’t do well saving, organizing and retrieving documents in a large system’s PC world. I think I need a tutor. And I also wanna say that I love devices in optimistic colors and matte black isn’t that for me. Something lighter always makes me feel a little bit brighter.

Mobile devices: I’m feeling a little self conscious here about my loyalties but it’s iPhone X and iPad Pro and Apple Pencil (which I LOOOOOOOOVE).

And I just wanna say that my screen time averages prove how much time I work from my phone. Holy bananas, Batman, those little glass plates allow us to do so much work from just about anywhere. I mean think about it….

Dr. Swanson at work. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: The Marco Polo app is by far and away the most delightful way I communicate. A group of old friends from college and I are basically surviving middle age because of it, together. I also use Screen Time, weather, Instagram, Health, Gmail, Spotify, blah blah blah.

Snapseed is delicious for photo editing but I’m no good at it.

Procreate is mesmerizingly amazing. On the iPad Pro and with an Apple Pencil, we could all never work again and make beautiful things for the world there. I purchased the iPad Pro after the holidays and am just getting started. I’m also taking a watercolor class and the overlap is a bounty.

I store all sorts of things in the cloud like most humans. Google Photos is of course amazeballs and helps me delight my children or friends in ways historically unimaginable. I throw documents up to Dropbox mostly. I can’t imagine working without a cloud now.

If I was a better person and more organized I’d use Evernote. That app is killer, but I’m too busy delivering things to people to ever formalize my relationship with it. And maybe I’m not disciplined enough with my phone in that regard. But I sure wish I was. I bow down to you if you use it well for your ideas.

Dr. Swanson said she tries to keep up with tech advancements to find new ways to provide health education. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

I use a Moleskin notebook everyday. I love paper. And I know it’s not what you asked, but I love inky pens and paper and I doodle all the time in meetings. I listen better when I’m doing so and lay down memory better, too, when my pen is moving.

I’ve been trying to take notes on the iPad in GoodNotes. Sometimes it’s great.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I have a bunch of them. I’m hardly ever at my desk at Children’s now. It’s a cubicle in a sunny corner downtown. And in concept, open floor plans are wondrous for collaboration. No question my PR and comms support and I delight in proximity and get tons done when we’re sitting next to each other. But we meet anywhere it works. We spend a lot of time in drop-in desks at the hospital and I love hearing the voices of the people on my team but I don’t get to sit there all that often. I have a home office that is more cluttered than it should be. I work on the plane and on my phone a lot. In my car between meetings.

I love quiet for work. Music makes me sing and want to write poetry so white noise and quiet serve me better if I actually wanna get something done.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? My goodness, I think it’s compartmentalization. I waste all sorts of time spinning emails I need to respond to while lying in bed or in the car or when doing something else where I cannot actually execute the email. I prefer to compose on a computer (as opposed to a phone) so often I use the “star system” a lot to read/screen and respond immediately to communications and then grab a compartment during the day to compose more thorough responses. The exception to this is Twitter. The 280-character constraint is perfect for our mobile lives and mobile minds and mobile phones.

I have people who support me with a couple inboxes, but I suppose the one piece of advice I have for others who are overwhelmed (I have four email addresses and five social channels) is taking your time and having self-forgiveness, too. Sometimes you’ll just miss an email. Even though you don’t want to. Ever.

The amount of incoming messages is not ideal. If you’re email-overwhelmed start calling people back as opposed to authoring one email after another. Sometimes it saves the soul just talking to someone and real connection is galvanized in a way unachievable in an email.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? This is tough. I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and typically it’s my most cherished way to advocate for things and people I believe in, but ever since the last presidential election chaos began it’s so hyper-political that I often feel deplete and tachycardic after being on it. So I’m not there as much. The change in the feed algorithm bugs me, too.

For personal use, I adore Marco Polo. I have a connection with three cherished friends there that pushes oxygen.

Instagram is pretty. I mostly use it for work @mamadocmed. But if you know me and you know my children you also may be in my personal feed, too.

For work I’m on: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Doximity, YouTube, my blog and my podcast.

I could write a book to answer your question but suffice it to say this: I use social tools to listen to the world’s ideas and share little bits of mine along the way to work to help improve the lives of children everywhere.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 55,826. I’ll provide a screen grab if you need it. It sounds like I’m behind but I SWEAR TO THE HEAVENS it’s mostly promotional junk that I can’t delete in bulk. WHY?

I typically keep my Children’s Hospital email inbox close to zero. But I have someone who helps with that!

It’s the Gmail email stream that never ends. I unsubscribe to at least 1-to-2 sites a day. No joke.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week?

  • Eight on Monday at hospital
  • Two on Tuesday out of hospital, three meetings remote
  • 9-to-10 on Wednesday (hosting a team from Children’s LA)
  • Thursday I fly to SXSW for two meetings in afternoon, four meetings are remote
  • Friday I judge a competition for pediatric innovation at SXSW and then fly off to Washington, D.C. for a family event.

How do you run meetings? Historically with timed agendas. But sometimes I follow the feel of the group a bit, too.

Everyday work uniform? Nope. I love clothes and shoes. I do get in ruts though; sometimes I love to wear the same outfit again and again in short succession. Just happens.

How do you make time for family? Odd, I sincerely don’t know how to answer this other than saying, “How could I not?”

Dr. Swanson and her dog Monday. (Seattle Mama Doc Instagram Photo)

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Running. Hands down best thing in the world. Peloton with instructor Emma is a close second. Walking my puppy, Monday. Exercise is just an antidote to stress and washes my mind and soul. Being without a ceiling is goodness.

What are you listening to? Music: Kind of obsessed with “A Star is Born” soundtrack, Queen because I recently saw “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a flight back from London and wowsers, and, as always, my personal collection of songs on Spotify.

Book: I’m listening to Michelle Obama read “Becoming.”

Podcast: I am still a diehard fan of This American Life. Nothing surprising here, unfortunately (please tell me what I should listen to). How I Built This, we listen to that, and also Brains On when I drive carpool with my boys and our neighbors.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I read Seth Godin’s blog almost every single day. I’d say that’s remarkable until you realize he WRITES one every single day. I like Skimm, STAT news, 33 Charts and some digests from Medium. A few personal blogs here and there. I read Twitter every day.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I prefer real books to ebooks. I always have Mary Oliver around. Always. Her book “Felicity” is divine.

I’m in the middle of two books: “Parallel Lives” by Phyllis Rose, a fascinating read I found from a review in the New York Times that was written in the ’80s when I was in grade school; and “Letters from Max” by Max Ritvo and Sarah Ruhl, which a friend just sent me after a conversation we had on Marco Polo. It’s so good and easy to page through that it will be done likely later tonight.

Night owl or early riser? Neither, both.

I want to sleep as much as I can. Sleep is medicine for our minds and bodies. I wish I got more than eight hours every night, but work and travel often get in the way. When I can go to bed early (I’ve been known to crash before my boys) I will, and if there’s a great reason to stay up, I do. I can function on pretty little sleep, but there’s always a cost.

Early quiet mornings are blessings. If I had enough time to sleep I’d always want to be up early enough to watch the light crawl up into the sky.

Where do you get your best ideas? Usually after reading or consuming something inspiring and pulling some other idea from lots of things or experiences. Like writing, good ideas come along in gestalt but after lots of spinning and layering of ideas.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Some names come to mind, but really I’d love to learn from anyone who does things in a way that brings joy and less stress, less imposter syndrome, less frustration for the pace of change with innovation and less overwhelm. I’d really love to keep learning from women like me navigating these very sexist cultures online and in workplaces (everywhere) to learn ways to succeed and raise up other women around me with both grace and triumphant strength.

Also, thank you for asking all these things. I found this delightful, quite a gift, actually. Maybe why I plunked out 2,000 words in no time.