Welcome to the series where we explore the colliding worlds of medicine and music, and meet the MD's turning into MC's in order to educate, entertain and spark debate.
ZDoggMD is the creation of Dr Zubin Damania, previously a doctor at Stanford University and now CEO of Turntable Health, a primary care clinic in Las Vegas. ZDoggMD's fame has spread far and wide, and he is well known for his hilarious musical parodies which are often searing commentaries on the state of modern healthcare as well as educational and highly entertaining. He is also a well respected and sought-after speaker, and one of the pioneering medical rappers in the game.
PRN spoke to ZDoggMD to find out more about the man behind the music.
PRN: How and why did you come to create ZDoggMD and what was the reaction from your colleagues early on?
ZD: I did it as a cry for help! Working for nearly 10 years as a hospitalist, I saw so much dysfunction in our system, and moreover I felt like humor, creativity, and connecting with patients in unique ways were all deeply frowned upon in our medical culture.
I’d always loved making musical parodies (Weird Al is my biggest idol) and when YouTube came online, it only took me 4 years of worrying and inertia to finally post my first video (my UCSF graduation speech from 1999). That did so well that I was encouraged to make new videos. The chair of my department thought it was a bad idea and could make me look unprofessional, but I went ahead and did it “against medical advice” anyways!
PRN: Can you tell me about the creative process that goes into writing the songs/raps - do you start with a subject you want to rap about and find song that fits, or are inspired by the original songs and work around them to fit your themes?
ZD: Often I’m inspired by a song and feel the fit with the subject matter right away, then start writing lyrics. But in the case of “Ain’t The Way To Die”, I wanted to write something about the horrors of end-of-life care in the US, and so I searched for a song that fit. Once I stumbled upon the Eminem/Rihanna “Love the Way You Lie” I knew it was the perfect song.
PRN: Is there a big team behind ZDoggMD?
ZD: For the majority of time I’ve been doing it, it was just me and Dr. Harry Duh (a pediatrician and buddy from UCSF medical school). But in the last year I’ve added Devin Moore (an amazing musician who does all our audio production now…you’ll recognize his singing voice on EHR State of Mind and Ain’t The Way To Die, and he makes many funny appearances in our videos). Also, we’ve started working with a great video production team called Variables of Light. This team approach is VASTLY better, because it allows me to focus on the creative aspects rather than solely the technical aspects.
Still, I sometimes I love having control of the whole process and project; the ZVlogg episodes are shot and edited entirely by me for this reason.
PRN: There is always an underlying message in your songs and you recently released ‘Ain’t the Way to Die’ which addresses advanced care planning discussions. It’s a very emotive subject and you have tackled it in a really powerful way - what reaction have you had to this song?
ZD: It’s been overwhelming from doctors, nurses, patients, and family members. There is so much preventable suffering and cost at the end of life, and so much stigma around discussing it. The most inspiring responses have been from folks that have said, “After watching this video, I sat down with my loved one and told them my wishes for a good death. We had never talked about this before.”
PRN: As well as ZDoggMD you also run Turntable Health - can you tell me more about this?
ZD: It’s one thing to make videos satirizing our broken healthcare system, but I wanted to have some small role in transforming it. Turntable Health is a primary care model that shuns fee-for-service payments in favor of a flat flee for unlimited access to a team of health coaches, doctors, social workers, and nurses. Classes on yoga, meditation, nutrition. A population health approach that identifies patients at risk with a focus on preventing hospitalizations and illness. And we (along with our partners Iora Health) are seeing some amazing outcomes.
PRN: Have any of the artists whose music you’ve adapted commented on your version of their songs?
ZD: Not yet! Fingers crossed that it’s positive when it does happen! I would hope that they would be inspired that their work has a secondary function of inspiring education and change in healthcare, a field that touches pretty much everybody eventually.
PRN: Who else do you admire in the world of medicine and music?
ZD: The EMC is a great rapper-physician. Michael Barton is a doctor who makes some fantastic medical musical parodies. And pretty much every medical school class does something creative and amazing and shoots it up on YouTube. Medical people never cease to inspire me with their talent…that’s why it’s such a tragedy that our medical culture discourages expression so much.
PRN: What are your thoughts about the world of FoamED and the opportunities that social media and the internet have opened up for medical education?
ZD: Unlimited possibilities. It will be a drastically better world! Millennials are leading the charge and they aren’t going to accept an outdated “sage on a stage” way of teaching and learning.
PRN: How has the creation of ZDoggMD changed your career?
It’s transformed my entire life, and saved me. I was SO burned out, and felt so powerless in my day-to-day career. This has allowed me to live my unique life, and contribute my unique gifts (limited as they are) to making things better. I’ve never been happier or more fulfilled. And now when I see patients, I have a vastly bigger perspective.
PRN: What’s next in store for you?
ZD: More videos, expanding our clinical operations, and starting a show (think Daily Show but for medicine). Stay tuned!