Dr. Michael Evans is the creator of the worldwide YouTube sensation “23½Hours,” which has been viewed by over four million people, drastically outpacing any other health-based messaging in history. Believing that everyone should take a proactive role in their health, Dr. Evans shares both his approach to healthcare education and his invaluable knowledge, offering suggestions on how to best take care of ourselves to avoid disease. We were thrilled to see that Reader’s Digest put Dr. Evans on their current cover, with the magazine featuring both a special interview with him, along with easy-to-implement health tips he’s known for:
“I’m not going to give you anything fancy here—no special diet, no special workout. I’m not flogging a book, although I’ve been told I should be.” The crowd of 100 titters. Dr. Mike Evans, Canada’s most recognizable family physician, is a master of the one-liner. Dressed in a blue shirt, jeans, red sneakers and thick-rimmed glasses, the 50-year-old is at the University of Toronto, where he’s giving a healthy-living pep talk to alumni on a Friday afternoon in late May. Also a master of charm, he’s ramping up the aw-shucks quotient. He admits he’s guilty of texting his kids while they’re all in the house: laughter. An anecdote about keeping a patient who overdosed on Viagra away from a gorgeous resident: howls. “Instead of driving around the parking lot looking for a better spot, why not park farther away, in the spot reserved for people who want to live longer?” Hahahaha. Evans ums and ahs his way through the speech, tics that position him as a hockey dad next door with a knack for tips that may just, you know, save your life. Sleep better. Move often. Have a good attitude. Make wiser food choices. The prescriptions sound like common sense, but convincing people to tweak their behaviour is a gift. And Evans has it.
“That was great, Mike!” one silver-haired senior says as he walks by, flashing a thumbs-up. “Best talk I’ve ever heard,” a burly man gruffly proclaims before striding out the door. Doris Kalamut, an exuberant alumna and lecturer in the faculty of pharmacy, is the last superfan standing. “It’s so great to finally meet you!” she exclaims, shaking his hand and leaning in. “I’ve seen you…” she pauses—stage whisper—“on YouTube.” The object of her affection flashes an impish, gap-toothed grin. Welcome to the Dr. Mike Evans Show.
Millions of people across the world have seen Evans on YouTube. Three years ago, he and filmmaker Nick de Pencier, the producer behind the critically acclaimed documentaries Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, took to the video-sharing website to release their brainchild, “23 and ½ Hours.” It was the result of a rap session between Evans and his childhood friend de Pencier; illustrator Liisa Sorsa, whom Evans met at a design conference, was later brought into the fold. The video, drawn in black marker on a dry-erase whiteboard, depicts the good doctor as a comic-book detective searching for the best thing you can do every day for your health. It asks the counterintuitive question, “Can you limit your sitting and sleeping to less than 23 and a half hours a day?”
The video went online on a Monday in December 2011. By the Wednesday, it had a respectable 230 hits. “I was bragging all around town. I was forcing my kids to look at it,” Evans says. “On the Friday, it went logarithmic. In the morning, it had 12,000 views; in the afternoon, 17,000. I got a little obsessed.” De Pencier puts it another way: “There was definitely a holy shit moment.”
The video now has more than four million views (2.8 million from the United States and Canada), has been translated into eight languages and even got a shout-out on the hit TV show Orange Is the New Black. It’s been watched everywhere from India (the fifth largest market, at 72,230 views) and Syria to Somalia and Liechtenstein. Since “23 and ½ Hours,” the team has created 20 other segments, building a free online medical library that lives on a YouTube channel called DocMikeEvans and addresses everything from stress to acne to concussions.
Evans is the director of a health design lab and a staff physician at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, the endowed chair in patient engagement in child nutrition at U of T, a writer for The Globe and Mail, a radio host for the CBC, a children’s book author and the head of a film company. At a time when a glut of web-based health information is causing us to tune out or, worse, to buy into dangerous misinformation, he might just be the remedy: a reliable, relatable expert with the gift of the gab.
Wander and Wonder
Born in Toronto to a lawyer father and artist mother, Evans and his family moved to Hamilton when he was a toddler and lived there until his parents divorced a decade or so later. After completing his undergraduate degree in romantic poetry at McGill University in Montreal, he worked in the High Arctic as a driller on an ice floe. When his itchy feet took him to the Far East, he climbed Everest and lived in silence in a monastery. He eventually made his way to India, where he volunteered with Mother Teresa in Kolkata. “I remember being in the leprosarium, and a guy had lost his nose, ear cartilage and a bunch of digits,” Evan says. “He pointed to the freckles on my arm and asked, with all the empathy in the world, ‘Is it curable?’” It was an important lesson in perspective. Evans returned to Canada and applied to medical school at Hamilton’s McMaster University.
He was rejected. No matter—the 25-year-old was already deep into environmental entrepreneurship and had started up a consultancy to teach companies to go green. When he was accepted to McMaster the following year, he made the tough decision to leave his business behind. A good thing, too: med school is where he met his future wife, Sue Edwards.
Laugh and Learn
To borrow from Nora Ephron, for Evans, everything is copy. To wit: after their third child, Angus, was born, Edwards wrote in the birth announcement that she’d scheduled her husband for surgery. In typical fashion, Evans turned his vasectomy into a production. On Valentine’s Day, he and six buddies piled into a van blasting the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” and drove off to get snipped. “The questions my friends asked me ranged from ‘Will I lose my mojo?’ to ‘If my wife was to tragically die and I was to marry somebody 30 years younger, can I get reconnected?’ None of these were answered in the handouts,” says Evans. He’d hit on something crucial—health information often fails to address the most instinctual of concerns. CBC journalist Evan Solomon wanted to do a segment on the vasectomies, and Evans seized the opportunity. The best way to get people to listen is to tell them a story.
Evans’s stories have an undeniable reach. The YouTube comments on “23 and ½ Hours” offer inspiring testimonials: a grandmother was encouraged to get active after watching; a commuter ditched the car for the bike; a California man, Renato Valdés Olmos, developed his own app, Human.co, to help users move more than 30 minutes every day. Even Evans’s own crew has been affected. After Sorsa illustrated a short on quitting smoking, she kicked her habit of 20-plus years.
Why are these videos effective when other web-based health content fails? Evans posits it’s because he’s authentic and curious. University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield, the bestselling author of The Cure for Everything!, concurs; he remembers watching “23 and ½ Hours” for the first time, exclaiming “yes, yes, yes!” as each tableau passed. “Three or four years ago, the degree to which exercise was good for you wasn’t really permeating popular culture,” he says. Here was someone drawing simple conclusions from complex evidence in a refreshingly accessible way. Judith Brown, a professor at Western University’s medical school in London, Ont., and an expert in patient-doctor relationships, says Evans’s work is more motivating than any government campaign she’s seen. The challenge in “23 and ½ Hours” is “presented in such a way that you think, Thirty minutes a day in motion? Of course, you can spare 30 minutes.”
Not every Evans project is a win, however. A series of hockey-card–style handouts about prescription medication was a total flop. The target audience—seniors—thought they were silly. A comic book about diabetes didn’t live up to expectations. And there’s the niggling question of sustainability. Evans doesn’t always receive funding from government bodies or advocacy groups for his videos, each of which costs upward of $45,000 to create, so he and de Pencier bankroll the ones they believe most important. The friends are now crowdfunding through Indiegogo for the more abstract topics they want to tackle (optimism, resilience), cognizant that they can’t finance the videos forever.
Spending a day with Mike Evans is like downing a packet of Pop Rocks. He’s relentlessly positive and a tireless embodiment of his own principles. He goes out of his way to make each waking moment a little tougher on his body, as per his video “Make Your Day Harder,” in which he implores viewers to change their lives in little ways for a more active and ultimately happier existence. (Evans is his own most extreme ambassador: when he tore a ligament in his ankle in 2012, he biked around Toronto for weeks in a cast.) Because he’s so busy, and loves being the ideas guy, Evans can’t always be bothered with the minutiae of everyday life. It takes him weeks to respond to my interview request, and when he does, the email, in its entirety, reads “Tues?” When we finally connect and he invites me to tag along that Friday in May, I meet the St. Michael’s Hospital communications adviser, who confides that Evans doesn’t return her emails either.
Traces of Evans’s absent-mindedness are everywhere. He opens his paper mail twice a year. He is his accountant’s worst nightmare. Cooking pasta happens in fits and starts: he boils the pasta, dishes it out into bowls plain, reconsiders, puts it back in the pot, adds some pesto, starts dishing it out again, remembers the tomatoes, puts the pasta back in the pot, roasts the tomatoes with garlic and mixes them in before finally spooning the meal into the bowls for keeps. “If it’s something he really cares about, he’s the most focused, organized person I know,” says his physician wife, who is also the director of resident wellness at U of T’s medical school. “But he doesn’t always tell you things like, ‘Oh, I’m flying to California tomorrow.’”
Health care depends on the strength of doctor-patient relationships. In ancient Egypt, patients approached doctors with the same reverence they did priests—benevolent parent figures to be strictly obeyed. In the Middle Ages, patients were considered no more intelligent than infants. But in the late 19th century, Freud had an idea. What if, instead of treating patients like objects to be tinkered with, caregivers listened to their concerns?
Evans believes technology can help reinforce the bond between patient and doctor. He envisions a layered relationship with his patients: keeping in touch via email, using the Internet to schedule appointments and renew prescriptions, suggesting treatments such as online cognitive behavioural therapy. Because he’ll get to know his patients and their needs better through frequent interaction, face-to-face communication only stands to improve.
Earlier this year, Evans’s eagerness to innovate caught the attention of big-name institutions, most notably the U.S. Institute for Healthcare Improvement and Apple. Evans flew to California for a crash course in the electronics multinational’s plan to break into the health market using sensors on wearable technology. A move to Silicon Valley, however, will have to wait. For one, there are still videos to release, and the next year is ambitious: a second concussion video, one on adhering to your medication, another on screening for prostate cancer, one on insomnia and another on depression. The team is also scheduled to produce two series—on patients with chronic diseases and on nutrition—that it’s hoping will catch on like “23 and ½ Hours.”
The cool air inside Bill Bolton Arena offers relief from the late-spring humidity. This is where Evans plays hockey twice a week. But today is special—his 15-year-old son, Finn, has popped by for a lunchtime game of shinny. It’s a rare occurrence; Finn plays for the Mississauga Rebels and is eligible for the NHL draft next year. No periods are timed, no goals are counted. Finn weaves across the ice. Father passes to son, who dekes out another player, sidewinding until his dad is behind him and able to pick up the puck. Here, Evans isn’t a YouTube sensation or a consultant for Apple or doctor to the Everyman. Here, he’s just a dad, listening to his own advice and playing a half-hour of hockey with his kid. He sees an opening, pauses and takes the shot.