On TikTok, surgeon Karen Tang shares health insights with a new audience

During the day, the University of Chicago alum Karen Tang is a minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon. By night, she’s the fearless @karentangmd on TikTok. Since she created the account in 2020, Tang’s informative, funny and non-judgmental videos on topics including menstruation, sexual health and transgender rights have been viewed millions of times. She has even gained a few celebrity followers, among them comedian Margaret Cho and The Queer EyeIt’s Jonathan Van Ness.

In a recent interview with UChicago Magazine, Tang, AB’00, discussed why she pursued medicine, how she built her online presence, the importance of caring for transgender patients and more. Her comments have been edited and summarized.

What inspired you to join TikTok?

A few years ago at a conference, one of my friends was talking about her Instagram account and said something that changed the trajectory of my life. She said we need to go on social media, because that’s how people find health information now. As physicians, we are almost obligated to understand how people are consuming health information and meet them where they are. In 2020, I suddenly had all this time on my hands and, like everyone else in the world, I was trying to figure out something productive yet fun to do. Instead of making sourdough bread, I decided to try TikTok.

I had this vision of TikTok as a place where people dance and trend, but other doctors told me, “No, it’s not about dancing—you can just talk if you want to.” My first video that broke was in response to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s statement about the gender binary. I have cared for trans and non-binary patients in my practice for over a decade. So I quickly shot a video saying that not only is gender non-binary, but biological sex is non-binary. This is a well established fact. Intersex conditions are common and a real, medically accepted thing. It’s insulting and narrow-minded to say it’s a simple binary. This video really resonated with people.

What is your process for making videos?

I wish I could say I have a really organized workflow. Usually what happens is I scroll through TikTok for a bit and I’ll see that people are talking about a topic I know—painful periods, sexual health, COVID-19. And then I will answer it.

Something I learned was that people liked to see me talk. At first I thought, it’s TikTok, people want something quick and fast. But people actually liked some of the longer explainer videos, which blew me away.

You post a lot about endometriosis in particular – why?

I see many patients with endometriosis in my practice. It’s very common – something like one in 10 certain women in labor have endometriosis at some point. But it takes an average of seven years from the time someone starts having symptoms to the time they are diagnosed. And there are many reasons for this. One is that the symptoms are a bit embarrassing – you know, painful sex, painful periods, irregular bleeding, bowel symptoms. Things that people may not feel comfortable sharing with their doctors. Sometimes patients are told that these symptoms are normal.

Conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis, pelvic floor muscle problems are what I call “hidden conditions” because they tend not to show up on imaging studies. They are difficult to diagnose unless you know what you are looking for. For all these reasons, people will spend years and years in debilitating pain and terrible suffering. It’s something I wanted to talk about from a professional perspective and because people are really hungry for information.

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