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Indian doctor in US on a mission to reduce people’s belly fat | India News

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Dr Palaniappan Manickam, better known as Dr Pal on YouTube, is an unlikely internet sensation, deconstructing matters of health, and Covid now, in viewer-friendly videos peppered with references to cricket, films and songs. Currently based in Sacramento, California, he’s hugely popular among Tamil-speakers in India and across the diaspora.
The 37-year-old doctor, who hails from Madurai, did his MBBS from PSG College, Coimbatore and Masters in public health in Boston. He did his Masters in general medicine in Detroit followed by specialisation in gastroenterology. He’s married with two kids.
He spoke to TOI in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
When did you decide to make your first medical educational video?
In March 2020, a non-profit organisation wanted me to do an educational video on Covid awareness. My wife and my kids were in Chennai then. I was supposed to join them but because of the lockdown, I had to stay back in California.
Since I had time on my hands, I created the 12-minute video and sent it. They said it looked like stand-up comedy and wasn’t professional enough for a doctor’s presentation. I’d spent so much time on making it and asked them what I should do with it. They told me to upload it to YouTube and that’s when I discovered one can start a YouTube channel with just a Gmail account.
I sent the video clip to a WhatsApp group I know and after that, it went viral quite fast, mainly because of the timing as Indians were trying to know more about the coronavirus.
Was it a difficult transition- from a medical professional to YouTube sensation?
When you say YouTube sensation, I have an uncomfortable sensation in my stomach (laughs)… My main problem is to balance my professional requirements and the YouTube channel. I love doing videos because it reaches so many people. I always have this guilty feeling that I came to the US for a better life and couldn’t serve my people. I’m dealing with that guilt through this approach. Coming from a middle-class family, applying for the United States medical licensing exams in 2006 was a no-brainer given the difficulty of a ‘first doctor’ in the family. It has helped me grow professionally and eventually has led to this YouTube channel.
Have you done anything similar earlier?
Not at all. I’ve done some skits in the local community, just for fun. But looking back, I’ve always infused a fun element in my PowerPoint presentations, regardless of the topic. People in my medical school, residency and fellowship programmes would say I have a flair for teaching. I’ve combined both and am now able to reach many people.
Your videos are enjoyed as much for the medical/ scientific information as the cultural references?
My sounding board is my wife, a data scientist in a software company- she behaves as if she is a NASA scientist (laughs). I try explaining to her the complex medical cases I deal with using references to cricket and cinema.
How do your patients / peers react to your online popularity?
I have a huge advantage over colleagues in India because I’m not competing for patients. Hence, the whole YouTube experience is not for recruiting patients or for revenue. All the revenue from the channel goes to the Aishwaryam Trust, a non-profit charity organisation for hospice patients.
When colleagues in the US hear about the videos, they’re like: ‘How do you get time to do all this?’ They’re very supportive and I’ve brought in a few for live sessions on the channel, apart from tapping their expertise. I’m able to relate to doctors from multiple ethnicities, including those from the US, Africa, UK, Middle East and South-east Asia to explore a variety of topics.
A problem now is many patients contact me via the channel for consultations. I’m currently with a hospital and it’s extremely difficult to accommodate their requests. I feel bad saying no because they trust me. I try to accommodate as many as possible but in the past few weeks it’s eating into my family time as well.
What does your family think about this work?
My wife did not believe my popularity until a subscriber took a selfie with me outside an Indian restaurant in Sacramento. Interestingly, I reached out to an unknown person in a coffee shop who was looking at me for a while and said, “I am Dr Pal, you must have seen me on YouTube.’ He said, ‘No!’ (laughs). A distant uncle sent a video of mine little realising that it was me, saying “Look at this doctor, he speaks very well!’.
Where do you see this going in the near future?
It’s an opportunity to create a platform to provide services, to Indian patients particularly. When you see the demographics of my channel, it is mainly 70% South Indian. My focus is on abdominal fat- we call it thoppai in Tamil.
I see so many patients around 40 years dying, leaving a young family behind. I lost a close friend because he didn’t take care of himself. I don’t want this to happen to others. I’m going to channel my energy to reducing belly fat and save at least one life. Some young kids will be spared the trauma of growing up without a parent



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