Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD and Medscape.

Empowering Patients with Trustworthy Information: Dr. Whyte on Leadership, Effective Communication, and Telemedicine

by Amrutha Denduluri

WebMD is one of the largest health information platforms in the United States. Championing the motto better information creates better health, the company’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr. John Whyte, emphasizes addressing gaps in effective communication and strategies to empower the public with trustworthy health information, which is especially critical in the year of COVID-19. Dr. Whyte is a board-certified internist who completed an internal medicine residency at Duke University Medical Center and received a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Prior to arriving in Washington D.C., Dr. Whyte was a health services research fellow at Stanford University and an attending physician in the Department of Medicine.

Previously, Dr. Whyte served as the Director of Professional Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In this role, he spearheaded numerous efforts to address diversity and inclusion in drug development programs, focusing on necessary changes in clinical trial design. Before his public service, Dr. Whyte worked for nearly a decade as the Chief Medical Expert and Vice President of Health and Medical Education at Discovery Channel. His unique background in both government and the private sector provided him with an exceptional perspective on wellness, clinical trials, information technology innovation, and health care services. Dr. Whyte has been a leading voice in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, being named as one of the top 20 health influencers in 2020. He is also a major contributor to iterating digital platforms, from simply providing content to playing a pivotal role in connecting to care.

On Thursday, April 29, 2021, the Voices in Leadership web series welcomed Dr. John Whyte, CMO of both WebMD and Medscape, and Professor Barry Bloom, the Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Research Professor of Public Health and former Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Their discussion covered Dr. Whyte’s path to leadership, how he has worked at WebMD to provide reliable COVID-19 information for the public, and the importance of science-based communication and telemedicine.

Perspectives from the Past

Talking about his journey in the field of healthcare policy, leadership and communication, Dr. Whyte shared that his public health education opened his mind to thinking beyond the individual patient and toward populations and the global community. He emphasized: “we are not safe unless we are all safe”. The dual perspective of centering the patient as well as the community in addressing health issues has helped him become a better physician. His experiences influenced his belief that health policy and education are intertwined and that health policy impacts both personal health and public health.

Additionally, Dr. Whyte believes that education about both disease states and policies will create a foundation where people are equipped with the skills to translate research into practice to drive positive health outcomes. He highlighted the importance of bridging gaps in communication between different fields of healthcare, such as education, policy and clinical practice: “And it’s really about, in many ways, breaking down those walls that separate all of us that keep us in these silos. That’s what we need to do if we really want to solve crises and have an impact”.

Effective Communication and Artificial Intelligence

Dr. Whyte stated that a large portion of consumers who search on WebMD are also the biggest utilizers of healthcare services. Talking about his customer demographic, he mentioned that a significant portion of WedMD’s readers are women who are educated, affluent, and white. Nonetheless, the sheer magnitude of the people who read the website and browse information on a myriad of health-related conditions gives WedMD an incredible opportunity to understand the true needs of people represented from around the country. Given the stigma that society places on certain health conditions, such as sexually-transmitted infections, WedMD also offers information on local testing centers and one-on-one chats with doctors. As such, Dr. Whyte called for healthcare platforms to 1) focus on culturally appropriate messaging, tailored to their readers and consumers and 2) invest in effective communication workflow with their audiences.

As the world is focussing on new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and computer predictions of symptomatic or lab test integration, WebMD uses machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to create algorithms to help its consumer base better navigate the website, depending on their needs. Dr. Whyte shared that it is important to address how deep learning and AI can be used to alleviate the systemic barriers to accessing healthcare and experiencing services resulting from racial, ethnic and socio-economic discrimination. He said that new healthcare technologies should strive to strike a balance between protecting intellectual property (IP) and enabling clinical adoption in the process of creating a transparent and efficient algorithm for AI application.

Clinical adoption of AI is important because it can serve a range of purposes and objectives, such as automatic natural language processing, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, machine learning, computer vision and robotics among others. Aspects such as industrial design, copyright and patent issues need to be taken into account when addressing IP rights, but there are numerous ways to find an equilibrium between protecting intellectual property and achieving AI transparency. Moreover, the success of telehealth, AI and other technology-driven innovations depends on long-term relationships and effective communication between program developers, technology teams, clinical care teams and consumers.

When discussing his vision for WebMD, Dr. Whyte mentioned that different communication strategies need to be employed by health information platforms to effectively reach readers with different learning styles. The company is working on multiple tools such as information bullets, slides, text, infographics, videos, voice activated searches, among others, as well as greater use of easily understandable language. By being mindful of varied health literacy levels, effective communication systems can be developed that cater to a range of customers representing various parts of different communities. Dr. Whyte asserted:

“Nearly 80 million people come to WebMD every month. And they search multiple pages, and spend over six minutes of time. That’s a lot of eyeballs, and they’re coming back. And we want them to come back to get better information, to use that information to help make decisions.”

Also, as medicine is uncertain, complex and rapidly evolving every day, the objective Dr. Whyte hopes to achieve through the company is to empower patients with nuggets of accurate information about symptoms and range of possibilities, connecting them to care without being overwhelming. This creates a flow of communication and ease in readers so that they visit the website when needed throughout their health-related journeys on a long term basis.

Dr. Whyte envisions that, if health education and information platforms focus on diversity in both the content and imaging, this is a step in the right direction towards effective and inclusive communication, so that more people in society can relate to, access and apply the information.

Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD and Medscape (Right), was virtually interviewed by Professor Barry Bloom, the Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Research Professor of Public Health and the former Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Left) for the Voices in Leadership web series for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Telemedicine and Healthcare Inequities

As science and technology are advancing quickly, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Whyte has seen that people are starting to take more control of the care they receive and the process of treatment and recovery by using technology. To cater to these needs, healthcare systems should focus on empowering patients and move from a provider-centric to a patient-centric system at all care delivery levels. One such successful avenue is telemedicine, which can help with remote diagnoses and treatments by means of telecommunications and technology. This can drastically reduce patient wait times and the need to travel every time a patient might need to see a provider. Dr. Whyte is optimistic that, with the right payment structures that can accommodate virtual and home-based care and organized health delivery services, all patients can benefit from telehealth. Telemedicine has made care more convenient, which is evident by the growth of this industry over the past year.

A concern that Dr. Whyte expressed with the use of telemedicine is that, instead of acting as an equalizer for socio-economic inequities in access to healthcare services, telehealth might widen socio-economic barriers by being unavailable to certain communities due to systemic discrimination against urban location, household income, insurance coverage, education levels and age groups. Additionally, some sub-specialties like dermatology and radiology employ telemedicine more often than others, and there is a chance that patients with a particular level of awareness, insurance coverage or functional cameras or laptops might use telehealth more frequently than patients without access to these resources. There is a need for healthcare practitioners to take an active role in addressing these inequities in order to provide access to services for people who otherwise might not be able to receive them because of geography, income or other reasons.

In the context of developing tools to address health inequities, Dr. Whyte stated:

“We know it exists. What we need to talk about are solutions of, how do we address it? And then how do we measure it? …COVID has certainly taught us about the disparity that those that have worked in the space know has existed for decades. As you know, Dr. King talked about the greatest disparity is the disparity in health.”

Experts around the world in public health have been invested in finding ways to address this issue for many years. It is not enough to just provide information and sensitizing tools about health inequities to young medical practitioners. Instead, Dr. Whyte finds it crucial to embed equity issues into the information about disease management in all aspects of medical education. With the help of a separate health equity committee, Medscape is making efforts to guide programming and education tools, in addition to modifying content to embed these aspects into the subject itself. The company is encouraging healthcare practitioners to recognize systemic discrimination in clinical practice and healthcare delivery as well.

Empowering Patients: An Opportunity for Discussion

Patients often look up symptoms and bring information about their symptoms to their doctors’ visits; Dr. Whyte appeals to medical teams to consider these situations as opportunities for more productive conversations, as this can shift experiences toward a shared decision-making framework, rather than a provider-centric one. He also affirmed that WebMD understands its consumer base and works backwards from patient experiences to make the website more robust.

WebMD is focused on being a bridge for discussion by not only providing information about symptoms and a range of diseases, but also offering support for chronic illnesses. It does so by adding content on the journey of living with chronic illnesses, how other patients are managing, tips and tools to cope with related mental health distress, and clarifications about prevention and reversibility of disease states. This also nudges customers into inculcating healthy lifestyle habits to shift towards prevention of certain chronic illnesses to which they could be predisposed, depending on their medical and social history. Giving people the right information makes them more capable to make informed decisions about their health and engage effectively in conversations with their medical practitioners and care providers.

Vision and Inspiration

Dr. Whyte continues to be an incredible health influencer, leader and communicator. He is committed to empowering patients and healthcare professionals with trustworthy data through WebMD and Medscape. His vision to cater to the healthcare needs of a diverse audience, with the help of innovative, inclusive and efficient communication strategies, reflects positively on the growth of the company and inspires current and future generations of public health leaders.

Story written by Amrutha Denduluri, a MPH candidate in Quantitative Methods, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Amrutha is a research assistant with the Global Health Research and Training in Non-communicable Diseases and Perinatal Epidemiology (GRAPE) Lab, focusing on maternal mental health in low-and-middle-income countries. She is also the Vice President of Harvard Chan Student Music Club and Student Advisory Committee member for the Office of Career and Professional Development at HSPH. She was raised in Hyderabad city, India where she completed her MBBS at Osmania Medical College. Working in a resource limited government hospital set-up, she was curious about population level determinants that drive health outcomes that led her to pursue a MPH. Prior to her MPH, she worked as a research assistant in Adolescent Medicine at Boston Medical Center, where she developed a passion to help underserved, minority and immigrant young adults. Duringmedical school, she held several leadership roles wherein she served as the Vice President for Medical Students’ Association of India and volunteered as a spoken-English teacher in a government school in Hyderabad. Through her family’s non-profit, Denduluri Foundation, she helps local children with their primary education and vocational skills training. Outside of her research and practice, Amrutha is a trained Carnatic classical vocalist, Andhranatyam dancer and a licensed yoga teacher. Currently, to combat the spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis in India, Amrutha is volunteering, along with her medical school colleagues, to provide free telehealth advice about mild COVID-19 care and vaccinations to patients from her city. After graduating from Harvard in May 2021, she will be starting her Family Medicine residency training at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful (ID: Sherine/Dr./She/They), a Doctor of Public Health graduate (May 2021) of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Diasporic Jamaican exploring her/their passions as a public health practitioner and creative. As a Black Caribbean Feminist, she is/they are committed to celebrating and furthering pleasure, healing, and liberation for Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples and persons of diverse a/genders and a/sexualities. In this current critical juncture, her/their lived experiences are moving her/them towards the creation/curation of a life in which pleasure is greater than productivity. Her/Their public health interests additionally include feminist global health and development; gender and sexual health, equity, and justice; and anticolonial sustainable development in the context of climate change. If you can catch her/them, you’ll probably find Sherine obsessing over the color turquoise, gorging on chocolate-covered pineapples, or teaching herself/themself experience design to boost her/their event planning and production prowess!

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Voices in Leadership

Voices in Leadership

Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices