Las Vegas’ ZDogg MD hopes viral videos will change our approach to health care

Updated May 6, 2017 - 3:14 pm

The table is barren save for the highly trained medical professional hip-thrusting atop it, rapping about apple-bottom scrubs and fur-lined Crocs.

“We put a disco ball right there,” says Dr. Zubin Damania (aka “ZDoggMD”) after a brief salvo of sing-songy rhymes, surveying a room where a nurse once pole-danced around an IV stand for a video shoot. “It was dope. Until we set off the fire alarm.”

It was in this space, the now-empty offices of the Turntable Health clinic in downtown Las Vegas, that ZDoggMD, the “Weird Al” Yankovic of medicine, filmed the clip for his parody of Flo Rida’s “Low,” which he transformed from a club-worthy ode to booty-dropping honeys to a club-worthy ode to outpatient clinic workers.

Wearing faux dreads and a gleaming grill in said video, Damania turns the song’s mildly titillating original lyrics (“She turned around and gave that big booty a smack”) into a far-less-than-titillating rundown of a nurse’s day-to-day duties (“Turned around and gave that big booty a pap”) as various health professionals mean mug the camera and gyrate to the beat.

The video is but one of dozens that Damania has produced in the past few years, ranging from Taylor Swift parodies about prescription drug abuse (“Blank Script”) to serious ruminations regarding end-of-life care (“Ain’t the Way to Die,” a play on Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie”) to wonky reimaginings of Garth Brooks hits (“Friends With Low Plateletes”), which contains the immortal, karoake-killing couplet, “Ohhh, I’m not big on thrombopoiesis / Think I’ll skip on down to plasmapheresis.”

They’ve helped ZDoggMD become one of the medical profession’s biggest internet phenomenons, with nearly 500,000 followers on Facebook, whose videos have racked up millions of views, who’s become such an in-demand speaker at medical conferences, he’s got gigs booked all over the country through November.

He has hundreds of thousands of converts, many of them medical professionals from here to … you name the state, Damania has fans there.

“I share most of his videos with my peers, because they’re hilarious and educational,” says Sharon Cranford Boyd, a registered nurse in North Carolina for 25 years. “I’ve shared a couple with patients as an educational tool — testicular self exams for the younger men — and they loved it.”

Adds Marie Stephanie Lapid, a registered nurse at Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center who appeared in the “Low” video: “I think Zubin’s music videos are a great outlet for the medical community, because he says things that we’ve always wanted to say to patients or administration.”

All this from a man willing to dress in drag to make a point about the harmful effects of UV rays on one’s skin and who has authored a song titled “Nothing Compares 2 Poo.”

The laughs are a means to a bigger end: ZDoggMD’s ultimate goal is to use his music to help transform the way we approach medicine.

“We need re-personalized care where we’re paid for actual outcomes, where we work as a team, where the human relationship is at the center,” he says. “We’re paid to do things to people instead of for people, and we’re powerless. Patients need to hear that we’re humans. The hope is the music will be a vehicle to trigger a movement and change.”

If this seems an overly ambitious aim, well, what are the odds that a frustrated doctor on the edge of burnout would become an internet sensation, racking up YouTube views at a pace normally reserved for viral novelties starring techno vikings and dancing hamsters?

And yet, this is what ZDoggMD’s done, one poop joke at a time.

A Dogg is born

In a crowded Summerlin cafe, Damania sings of grabbing his crotch as clearly and freely as the table next to him orders their lunch.

Looking like a bald, hoodie-wearing Michael Jackson, he recites a few lines from his testicular-self-examination anthem, “Manhood in the Mirror.” The reworking of Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” is one of Damania’s earlier videos, released in late 2010.

He slips in and out of character so frequently — and seamlessly — it becomes evident that ZDoggMD is less a persona than a natural, undistilled expression of who Damania is.

Seldom can the man contain himself — he’s a blur of one-liners and bouncing-off-the-walls energy, equating his personality to that abdomen-exploding space thingy in “Alien,” something that defies human confinement.

By the time Damania was in his early 30s and got hired at Stanford, where he did his residency, he was already feeling the strain of trying to be the buttoned-down, stern-talking, authoritative presence that doctors have traditionally been expected to be.

For Damania, playing that role was an unnatural, suffocating feeling. A people person to the bone, he wanted a connection with those he was treating, not professional detachment.

He started to feel like an impostor.

“I got very sad and had that early middle-aged crisis at 35,” he acknowledges.

And so he turned to the same thing that helped him as a kid: music.

“Someone asked me, ‘What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do?’ ” recalls Damania, a family man with kids who’s married to a fellow medical professional. “And I was like, ‘Make parody music that would educate people about medical stuff.’ So the guy said, ‘Well, there’s YouTube, just go do that.’ ”

With that, ZDoggMD was born.

The persona enables Damania to give voice to all the things that he couldn’t at his day job, to call out the bureaucracy of the industry, the bottom-line-first mentality that he saw as being far too prevalent in his field, the stifling of individuality in favor of sticking to proscribed roles.

“ZDoggMD was like my id for a long time,” he says. “He was the guy who could say those things that you would normally get in trouble for saying.”

Every Dogg has his day

The lid has been pried off an economy-sized can of stupid.

Back at Turntable Health, where Damania was CEO and founder, lured to Vegas in 2012 by Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project to start the clinic before it closed in January after three years, he and his crew are filming a skit where Doc Vader has left his lightsaber in a patient’s posterior.

“I’ve been here 30 years, I’ve seen everything in the rectum,” Damania assures a Vader in denial, who, for this shoot, is being portrayed by actor-director Tom Hinueber, a bear-sized dude who has to practically shoehorn himself into Damania’s “Star Wars” costume.

The bit is a play on the climactic scene from “Good Will Hunting,” where Robin Williams’ therapist character consoles a teary-eyed Matt Damon.

“It’s not your fault,” Damania tells the soon-to-be-sobbing archvillain. “It’s not your fault.”

Afterward, Damania and Hinueber giggle constantly while assessing each take like a couple of coaches breaking down game film.

“This is the beauty of having a show,” Damania says. “It’s a container of stupidity.”

Maybe so, but as with pretty much everything else he does, there’s a point behind the punch lines, some real sentiment to go with the fake get-ups.

“When doctors make mistakes, they have no one to turn to,” he explains of the video’s larger message. “They can’t tell their colleagues, because they feel like they’re going to be judged. So if another colleague’s coming up, like, ‘It’s not your fault,’ it’s a hugely powerful thing.”

Shooting clips like these has become a full-time thing for this bunch, whose productions have grown so popular, they now have some of them paid for by various sponsors in sync with ZDoggMD’s message (their clip for ZDoggMD’s take on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was financed by an electronic health records company).

Damania says he’s turned down offers from companies whose products he doesn’t endorse, like a vape pen manufacturer, as well as various drug companies.

“The Doctor Ozs and those guys, they’re board-certified physicians too, but once they start selling (crap) on TV, they lose credibility,” Hinueber says. “We don’t ever want to do that.”

What they do want to do is keep growing and laughing, if not necessarily in that order.

Time will tell if Damania will be able to change the industry the way he envisions.

But at least one thing will never be the same: the man beneath the blond Taylor Swift wig.

“In 2010, I was a type-A, high-strung, achievement-oriented, typical Bay Area doctor,” he says. “In 2017, I travel around the country intuitively feeling that we’re part of a wave of change that’s going to transform and re-humanize an industry. And that transformation never would have occurred had I not put that first video on YouTube.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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