Andrea Furlan
"I have posted 52 videos so far, I have over 100 more to do," Dr. Furlan says of her YouTube channel. "If I post one video a week, I have enough topics for two years’ worth of videos." (Photo: UHN)

Dr. Andrea Furlan has gone global.

It was nearly two years ago when Dr. Furlan was leading an educational session at UHN's Pain Clinic, where she is a physician, that she thought there might be a better way to connect with patients than the typical lecture led by herself, residents and fellows.

"I noticed the patient sitting there for an hour, listening to all this information being thrown at them, and I could see in their faces they are trying to absorb it all, but it can be too much," says Dr. Furlan, who is also a Senior Scientist at the KITE Research Institute at UHN.

That moment sparked the idea to start a YouTube channel as a resource for patients once they leave the clinic, sort of “homework" they can refer to on their own time while at home. Dr. Furlan was already telling patients to watch videos on YouTube, and she had a list of useful videos about chronic pain. But those videos were from different channels, not exactly what she wanted her patients to learn.

It's part of Dr. Furlan's approach to patient care – less about speaking, than doing.

And, it's one that appears to resonate. As of this month, Dr. Furlan's YouTube channel has more than 131,000 followers with some of her videos having well over one million views.

"I have posted 52 videos so far, I have over 100 more to do," Dr. Furlan says. “If I post one video a week, I have enough topics for two years' worth of videos."

What is chronic pain?

Dr. Furlan, who joined UHN as a clinic fellow in 2006 and staff physician in 2008, explains chronic pain as, "the alarm system of the body."

When an individual is experiencing acute pain such as a tooth ache, feeling the discomfort means the pain system is functioning well as it alerts the individual to go to the dentist. In most chronic pain systems, the alarm system is malfunctioning, making the pain constant.

"Not all physicians know the differences between acute and chronic pain so they treat the patient incorrectly," Dr. Furlan says. “It is like taping a broken cup instead of using glue."

Comprised of physiatrists, nurses, pharmacists, a chiropractor, and a family doctor, the clinic's main focus is on pain that stems from the musculoskeletal system. A member of the Toronto Academic Pain Medicine Institute (TAPMI), the clinic sees approximately 1000 new patients and between 2000 and 3000 follow-up patients per year.

Patients come to the Pain Clinic after suffering for a decade or even longer from their invisible pain. Many are frustrated and ready for solutions.

Going global

"I did this for myself and my patients at the start because I wanted to improve the flow of the Pain Clinic," Dr. Furlan says.

She quickly saw the benefits of her videos.

"I have patients come in and tell me they no longer need to see me because they have been doing the exercises at home following my videos and the pain has been relieved," she says.

Dr. Furlan is motivated to continue to help people and is inspired by how many she connects with all over the world.

"I have made friends globally and I am reaching far beyond what I ever imagined," she says.

About 21 per cent of her audience is from the United States, followed by India, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.

"There is nothing better than reading a comment from someone I have never met who says their pain is more manageable or has gone away," Dr. Furlan says.

In this YouTube video, Dr. Andrea Furlan explains 20 exercises for people who have osteoarthritis of the hips and knees. Posted in November of last year, it has nearly 2.8 million views.

With the ability to reach people worldwide, Dr. Furlan wants her videos to be as accessible as possible.

"I have added subtitles to my videos in 30 languages," she says. "Anytime I see a comment from someone asking for subtitles in another language, I add them as soon as I can."

Dr. Furlan even made videos specifically for her mother in Brazil who was not able to see a doctor because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is an amazing feeling and I love reading all the comments," Dr. Furlan says. "My husband laughs at me because I take a few minutes every morning and respond to every single comment."

Her passion project has gradually become a family endeavor. Dr. Furlan records a few videos at a time every three weeks to upload one a week. Her 19-year-old son edits her videos and posts them to YouTube, while her 16-year-old daughter films the videos and manages social media.

"What I say to my camera is going to be a megaphone to the whole world" she says. "It is a big responsibility, I do a lot of research before pressing record. I feel the weight in my shoulders."

Dr. Furlan is looking forward to receiving her YouTube plaque celebrating her accomplishment of reaching 100,000 subscribers, and with no plans to stop, she hopes to reach many more people from all over the world in the coming years.

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