Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Mass Communications

First Advisor

Young, Rachel

Second Advisor

Eko, Lyombe

First Committee Member

Tully, Melissa

Second Committee Member

Dalrymple, Kajsa

Third Committee Member

Tang, Wenfang


Since the beginning of the 21st century, the doctor-patient relationship in China has become increasingly confusing to observers. On the one hand, insiders of the medical discipline believed that the doctor-patient relationship could not even be worse. On the other hand, Chinese health care professionals appeared to be much more popular than they used to be. On the leading social media site, Weibo, many health care professionals managed to transform themselves into celebrities by producing content and interacting with ordinary social media users. These grassroots celebrity physicians have obtained tens of thousands, and even millions, of social media fans on Weibo, and they initiated online conversations about public controversies surrounding health and medicine, such as the doctor-patient relationship, health care reform, the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and so on.

The seemingly conflicting phenomena reflected the crises Chinese health care professionals were facing and their struggles to free themselves from these crises. Distrusted by the public, health care professionals attempted to repair their reputations and to rebuild a relationship of trust through their efforts in cyberspace. In other words, health care professionals' social media activities were largely a response to the frustrations they had experienced in their professional careers. In turn, being liked by numerous social media users reflected the publics' need to have direct conversations with health care professionals.

This study used textual analysis, in-depth interviews, and surveys 1) to explore Chinese celebrity physicians' motivations for and gratifications obtained from establishing a professional presence via social media; 2) to examine the online conversations between celebrity physicians and their social media fans; and 3) to discuss the potential medical, political, and cultural outcomes of their online activities. Results of the study suggested that celebrity physicians in China mainly used social media to achieve three goals: to increase public health literacy, to rebuild their professional identities, and to push the government to make changes to the current health care system. Accordingly, celebrity physicians were found to play multiple roles on Weibo: medical experts, opinion leaders, and celebrities. Each of these roles were performed and recognized by their social media fans in different ways, indicating the complexity of virtual social networks.

By analyzing Chinese celebrity physicians' online narratives and examining the factors that shaped their online activities, the project further explored the sociological factors contributing to digital media use, revealed the multiple connections contributing to the formation of virtual social networks comprised of celebrity physicians and their social media followers, and studied the presentation of cultural tension in cyberspace. From the practical perspective, future scholars and advocates could use the findings of this study to better design health and science campaigns. From the theoretical perspective, this study expanded the scope of the uses and gratifications approach, proposed new angles for examining the doctor-patient and the celebrity-fan relationships, and discussed the online presentation of, and inherent nuances contributing to, cultural conflicts.

Public Abstract

The study examined the online activities of Chinese celebrity physicians and their social media followers. In this study, Chinese celebrity physicians refer to health care professionals who present their professional identities on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, and who obtain a large following of fans. The big question of this study is: why do these health care professionals spend so much time creating health-related content and interacting with their fans via social media, and how do they manage to convert themselves into celebrities?

I identified three factors that explain celebrity physicians’ social media activities. First, celebrity physicians would like to produce social media content to increase public health literacy. Second, celebrity physicians hope to use their Weibo posts to reconstruct their identities as ethical medical professionals. Finally, they would like to use social media to expose the institutional deficiencies of the health care system in order to encourage the public to push the government to make changes. An analysis of the social media content produced by celebrity physicians further illustrated the particular discourses they built to achieve these goals. A survey of ordinary social media users suggested that celebrity physicians’ online activities have slightly increased public trust of doctors.

The study further explored the role of social media in mediating doctor-patient relationships, in promoting large-scale debates surrounding public controversies, and in reconstructing a public discourse about science and culture within a particular social and political context like China.


publicabstract, celebrity physician, social media, uses and gratifications


x, 212 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 200-212).


Copyright 2016 Li Chen