Since he began practicing medicine, Dr. Mikhail Varshavski has wanted people to feel invested in their health and empowered to ask questions from the seemingly mundane to the controversial.
“People are on their phones, so I had to go there,” he tells Fortune in a sit-down interview at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas this month, where he spoke about health misinformation.
Fast forward nearly a decade and over 11 million YouTube subscribers later and 2.1 million followers on TikTok, Varshavski—famously known as Doctor Mike on the screen—is one of the world’s leading internet personalities in health care.
“I was surprised by the ability of one person to make such a difference,” says Varshavski, who works as a family medicine doctor. Many of his TikToks get over a million views.
The $4 trillion wellness economy emphasizes “do-it-yourself” health care, as the Wall Street Journal puts it. However, many of the recommended products and services are pricey and inaccessible for most—not to mention there’s a lot of noise and misinformation in the space. It’s no wonder so many turn to the internet to get information from a credentialed expert who also happens to be great on camera. One survey last year found a third of Gen Z-ers head to TikTok for health advice, like for anxiety, weight loss, and depression.
“We poke fun at ourselves,” he says, referring to his videos with his slew of guests in the health and wellness space. “We’re making dad jokes or puns to make the content a little bit more digestible … You can actually make this information fun, relatable, and interesting.”
With an engaging tone, accessible explanations, and a touch of wit, Varshavski approaches topics from how often you should shower to the psychology behind positive affirmations and the questions around the rise in weight loss drugs like Ozempic. “When it’s time to be serious, we’re serious.”
Doctor Mike, how do I live longer?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Varshavski’s viewers were most curious about how immunity works and how diseases spread.
Today, questions about how to live longer and age well top the list. It coincides with the increasing interest in preventative health care to help people live healthier and longer.
But Varshavski is not going onto his channel to boast about the secret to living a long, healthy life or recommend a miracle drug for immortality. On the flip side, he warns people about over-optimization.
“In medicine, the enemy of good is trying to be perfect … whenever you try and make something perfect, it backfires because the body works in homeostasis, and always tries to keep a balance of hot and cold,” he says. “Anything in the extremes will have the opposite effect … that’s the dark side of hyper-optimization, where we start ignoring the problems by saying we have the solutions.”
To put it simply, there’s nuance. At its core, the basics ring true. Sleeping consistently each night, exercising, managing stress, and eating a balanced diet still remain the cornerstones of aging well, Varshavski tells Fortune. “That’s the kind of stuff that brings longevity to the forefront, and it’s a longevity that is achievable for people,” he says. “The people that tell you that you have to follow a specific pattern every single day a lot of times are setting you up for failure. I like to do it by saying, these are the things I’d like to accomplish today … and then [checking] them off one challenge at a time.”
As he continues to answer people’s questions and address the latest health trends, Varshavski knows he’s not immune to backlash, especially as the vast majority of Americans in the 2022 survey say influencers contribute to health misinformation.
Varshavski admits he’s gotten his fair share of hate mail like any major social media personality, from vaccine skeptics to fellow doctors who disagree with his approach. He says that when new information comes to light or he gets something wrong, he explains why and attempts to be transparent.
“Why I feel my content has been so successful is because I’ve approached it from the fair side every time,” he says. “In my approach, I’ve changed my mindset when presented with new information, and I’ve explained why. I think that’s what we do badly in medicine. We don’t explain the reasoning for why we make certain decisions.”
When it comes down to it, people access health information online more today than ever before. Varshavski wants to meet them where they’re at—and treat them as equals.
“We act like parents to our patients and our viewers, and that’s wrong,” he says. “We need to look at each other like equal teammates, and that’s where you get good results.”