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

By day, a graduate of the University of Chicago Karen Tang is a minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon. By night, she is 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 even gained a few celebrity followers, including comedian Margaret Cho and Strange eyeThis is 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 condensed.

What inspired you to get into TikTok?

A few years ago at a conference one of my friends was talking about her Instagram account and she said something that changed the trajectory of my life. She said we need to get on social media because that’s how people find health information now. As physicians, we are almost obligated to understand how people consume health information and meet them where they are. In 2020 I suddenly had all this time and like everyone else in the world I was trying to figure out something productive but 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, there’s no dancing—you can just talk if you want.” My first video that blew up was in response to Marjorie’s statement Taylor Green on gender duality. I have cared for trans and non-binary patients in my practice for over a decade. So I quickly made a video saying that not only is gender non-binary, but that biological sex is non-binary. This is a well established fact. Intersex conditions are common and a real, medically recognized 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 creating videos?

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

One thing I’ve learned is that people like to watch me talk. At first I thought it was TikTok, people want something fast and quick. But people actually liked some of the longer explainer videos, which kind of blew my mind.

You post a lot specifically about endometriosis – why?

I see many patients with endometriosis in my practice. It’s very common—something like one in 10 people assigned female at birth 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 even 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 don’t tend to show up on imaging. They are difficult to diagnose unless you know what you are looking for. For all these reasons, people will experience years and years of debilitating pain and terrible suffering. This is something I wanted to talk about from a professional perspective and because people are really hungry for information.

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