By day, University of Chicago alum Karen Tang is a minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon. By night, she’s the fearless @karentangmd on TikTok. Since she created the account in 2020, Tang’s informative, funny, and nonjudgmental videos on topics including menstruation, sexual health, and transgender rights have been viewed millions of times. She’s even gained a few celebrity followers, among them comedian Margaret Cho and Queer Eye’s 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 on TikTok?
A couple years back at a conference, one of my friends was talking about her Instagram account and said something that changed the trajectory of my life. She said we have to get on social media, because that’s how people find health information now. As doctors, we are almost obligated to understand how people are consuming health information and meet them where they are. In 2020 I suddenly had all this time on my hands and, like everyone else in the world, I was trying to figure out something productive but entertaining 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 do trends, but other doctors told me, “No, there’s no dancing involved—you can just talk if you want to.” The first video of mine that blew up was in response to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s statement about the gender binary. I have taken care of trans and nonbinary patients in my practice for more than a decade. So I quickly shot a video saying not only is gender nonbinary, but also that biological sex is nonbinary. That’s a well-established fact. Intersex conditions are common and a real, medically acknowledged thing. It’s offensive and narrow-minded to say that it’s a simple binary. That video really resonated with people.
What’s your process for making the videos?
I wish I could say I have a really organized workflow. Usually what happens is that I scroll TikTok for a bit, and I’ll see people are talking about a topic I know about—painful periods, sexual health, COVID-19. And then I’ll respond to it.
Something I learned was that people liked seeing me talk. I originally thought, it’s TikTok, people want some quick, snappy thing. But people actually liked some of the longer explanatory videos, which kind of blew me away.
You post a lot about endometriosis in particular—why?
I see a lot of endometriosis patients in my practice. It is very common—something like one in 10 people assigned female at birth have endometriosis at some point. But it takes on average seven years from when someone starts having symptoms to when they’re diagnosed. And there are many reasons for that. One is that the symptoms are a little 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 these symptoms are normal.
Conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis, pelvic floor muscle issues are what I call “hidden conditions,” because they don’t tend to show up on imaging studies. They are hard to diagnose unless you know what you’re looking for. For all those reasons, people will go years and years with debilitating pain and horrible suffering. It’s something I wanted to talk about from a professional perspective and because people are really hungry for information.