Most Influential

Most Influential, Health Care: Joel Bervell

The medical mythbuster

By Chris S. Nishiwaki February 5, 2024

Joel Bervell

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

When Joel Bervell was a senior at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo and one of the few Black students at the school, a moment of celebration quickly turned dark. Bervell was celebrating his admission to Yale when one of his classmates dismissed the accomplishments as “an affirmative action admission.”

The reality is that Bervell achieved among the highest gradepoint averages (including multiple advance placement classes) and highest SAT scores in his class. He was also president of seven school-based clubs. In between, he volunteered at multiple organizations around the region and founded a charitable foundation, Hugs for Ghana.

Now 28 years old, Bervell has since graduated from Yale and became the first Black student enrolled in the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Born in Richmond, British Columbia, to parents who had migrated from Ghana, the family settled in Mukilteo when Bervell was 2 years old.

Though he won’t graduate until 2025, he has already become a force for patient advocacy and education affectionately known as the “Medical Mythbuster” for his ability to distill complicated medical issues into easy-to-understand terms for lay audiences.

He reaches audiences primarily through social media, where he has 670,000 followers on TikTok, 208,000 on Instagram, 11,000 on X, 24,000 on Threads and 15,000 on LinkedIn. Combined he has more than 850,000 followers, accounting for more than 150 million impressions.

He has also been called to advocate at the highest reaches of government, virtually and in person. He serves on the White House Office of Public Engagement’s Healthcare Leaders in Social Media Roundtable; on the Council for Responsible Social Media; served as the American Medical Association’s medical student digital fellow; on The Atlantic’s Health Equity Advisory Board; and works with the World Health Organization’s digital communications team to combat the spread of misinformation on social media about Covid-19.

His advocacy and education have already altered how physicians practice medicine and interact with patients, in particular patients of color. For example, in 2020, in the throes of the pandemic, he promoted a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed pulse oximeters were three times more likely to inaccurately measure oxygen saturation in patients of color. In other words, a patient of color measuring healthy levels of oxygen saturation (95% to 100%) actually could be having dangerously low levels. It was a particularly critical measure to diagnose Covid-19.

In late 2021, a Covid-19 survivor of color he had not met but who had seen his videos online reached out to him. The patient was about to be discharged from a hospital after his pulse oximeter measured normal levels of oxygen saturation.

“It was such a powerful video because it was in the middle of the pandemic,” Bervell recalls. “A year after the video published, someone reached out to me on LinkedIn. He told me ‘You saved my life.’ He advocated for himself and stayed in the ICU and was intubated. If he hadn’t stayed, he wouldn’t have made it. That is one example that there’s this inaccuracy that we go to medical school, and it is not always taught.

“When (patients of color) go to the doctor’s office they are interacting with institutionalized issues, especially issues of race, ethnicity, and gender that impact their health care,” he says. “A lot of the problems that are perpetuating bias are systems based. For me, empowering patients comes from education and awareness. That’s why I took to social media in the first place.”

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5.7 percent of active physicians are Black. The percentage is even lower for surgeons. According to the job search and career development website Black Doctors, only 1.8 % of all surgeons are Black.

“One of the reasons I want to be a surgeon is because there are so few Black surgeons,” Bervell says. With his increased popularity also comes more detractors, including those with a racist agenda. “There were a lot of negative comments, which reminded me there’s still a lot of work to do,” Bervell says. “The solution is to increase diversity so you can bring solutions from people who know what the issues are.”

Bervell has another seven years of post-graduate training after medical school to become a surgeon. He also continues the work of Hugs for Ghana, which he started in high school. His grandmother, who helped raise him and his siblings while their parents were working and going to school, would take the children’s stuffed animals to give to kids in Ghana during trips back home.

In her memory, the Bervell family sponsored a stuffed animal drive as their first project for Hugs for Ghana. Expecting no more than 50 stuffed animals, the drive drew donations of more than 5,000 plush toys.

“I want to give two-X, three-X of what I received,” Bervell says of his future as a physician who advocates for diverse communities.

Follow Us

Movers & Shakers

Movers & Shakers

Profiling the people who shaped Seattle

Back in April 1968, Seattle magazine published a feature similar to our Most Influential issue, focusing on those who "truly call the shots."

Most Influential, Sports: Kalen Deboer

Most Influential, Sports: Kalen Deboer

Former University of Washington football coach

He started out small, leading Sioux Falls to three NAIA championships in his five years as head coach. He then worked his way up the NCAA food chain with stops at Southern Illinois and Western Michigan... Photo by Scott Eklund / Redbox Pictures

Most Influential, Arts: Shin Yu Pai

Most Influential, Arts: Shin Yu Pai

Poet, author, podcaster

Pai is an award-winning author, podcaster, and the city of Seattle’s 2023-24 Civic Poet. She has spent more than two decades in the literary field, penning 13 books... Photo by Sung Park

Most Influential, Arts: Jose Iñiguez

Most Influential, Arts: Jose Iñiguez

Educator, musician

Jose Iñiguez discovered the art of opera through a PBS special. As a teenager, he came across a program featuring a tenor singing an aria while watching TV with his dad... Photo by Ashley Genevieve