Lessons from the heart of the emergency department

Inspired by the desire to support our precious public health system, Shazma Mithani uses social media to educate, inform and connect.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 16 February 2023

Ask any emergency department doctor and they will tell you — in their world, there’s really no such thing as a “typical day.” But for Shazma Mithani, emergency physician at the Royal Alexandra and Stollery Children’s hospitals, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and a recent Edify Top 40 under 40 honoree, there is one constant — every day, whether in the ED or through various forms of new media, she is teaching people. 

“I have always felt passionate about educating,” says Mithani, also a recipient of the 2022 Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Medal for Citizen Community Builders. She reaches out regularly via her own social media channels and as the host of CBC Edmonton’s Everyday ER column. “I want to make sure the public is armed with information that can help them decide the best course of action when they’re sick.” That may be a big part of her motivation these days, but dig down to the roots of her activism and it becomes clear there’s a broader purpose at play.

How it all began

It was early 2020, when the pandemic took hold, that Mithani became a vocal force on Twitter.  The social media landscape had quickly become the place she and many other health professionals went to share trustworthy information about COVID-19 with the public. 

“Everyone was terrified. It became this space where the public could go for credible information from experts and health-care providers,” she remembers. “We could cut through the noise (of misinformation) with what mattered most, what was true and important.” It also provided a platform for her advocacy work around maintaining a robust public health system.

Supporting public health care

Social media has since evolved into something much more for Mithani than countering COVID misinformation. Focusing mostly on Instagram and TikTok with videos and infographics, these days she holds herself to a rigorous posting schedule to reach as many people as possible as often as she can. Most of her posts are based on preventive medicine — things the public can do to avoid the emergency department as much as possible. Her end goal is twofold — to support the health of individuals while also protecting the fragile health system. 

Growing up in the United States, Mithani was certain of two things early on in her studies: She wanted to be a doctor, and she didn’t want to be one there. “It really upsets me when things appear to be unjust,” she says, referring to the U.S.’s private health system. In fact, she is so passionate about public health care that she recently renounced her American citizenship. “That is the underlying driver for everything I do,” she says, “maintaining this true gift of a public health-care system.” 

Two worlds collide

It’s not hard for Mithani to find inspiration for her posts and columns during busy shifts in the emergency department, whether it be how to handle a child’s fever or whether hives are always because of allergies. These days, though, her overarching suggestion to every person who follows her — and who might be trying to figure out how to avoid long wait times or possible staffing shortages in emergency departments — is: “Get vaccinated for flu and COVID. Anyone who’s eligible should be vaxxed to the max.” This is closely followed by another tip she returns to again and again: “It’s really challenging right now, and I recognize it’s hard to find a family doctor, but if you do, make sure you see them for regular checkups.” Visiting a doctor or medical clinic on a regular basis is one of the best ways patients can avoid the emergency department, which is, as she says, better for all parties involved — better for patients and better for a stressed health system. 

While connecting online with the public gives Mithani great satisfaction, it should come as no surprise that, given her passion for public health, she has no intention of leaving behind the hectic world of the emergency department. “Working in the hospital keeps everything grounded for me,” says Mithani. “There is nothing more humbling than being with a patient, one-on-one, in crisis, and finding a way to sympathize and empathize with what they’re going through.” 

There's a certain level of unpredictability within a hospital emergency department that can bring into sharp focus just how little a physician can control. “That’s just the nature of the job,” Mithani is the first to acknowledge. So even though finding time between shifts to work on her posts and her CBC column can sometimes be a challenge, it’s one that comes with a creative control she welcomes. “I get to decide how to shape the content, what platform to put it on…even with the CBC, the team is very flexible, and I enjoy having some control over what’s going to be relevant to the public.” As she says, her two parallel career paths are like “two puzzle pieces, and they fit together. I couldn’t do one without the other.”

Leading with courage

Mithani has found great personal and career satisfaction on this dual path, despite some of the challenges that accompany being a more public figure. For other health professionals who may be considering building a media presence, she stresses that it is worth the risk: “You will confront challenges, you may face personal attacks and trolling, but as long as you know what you’re putting out there is factually accurate, you can stand by what you say regardless of what people might think of it. If you have something important and true to share, don’t be afraid.”

Beyond educating the public, cultivating an authentic online presence can also broaden your network in surprising and nourishing ways, says Mithani. She has built new connections with fellow health professionals and public figures who share her passion for truth and for countering misinformation, allowing for exciting new collaborations and projects. And she sees that growing in the future. “I would like a broader reach with public education, and to find other ways to have regular contact with the public,” she says. “But most of all, I want to be in a space where I’ll have the most impact on system change.”  

You can find Shazma Mithani on Instagram @drshazmamithani; TikTok @drshazmamithani; Twitter @shazmamithani; Facebook; and YouTube.