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What’s the News, Doc?

PHYSICIANS ADD ACCURACY AND DEPTH TO TELEVISION NEWS REPORTING.

The New Physician January-February 2004
It’s October and the Gupta Girls are online discussing what the good doctor should be for Halloween. One suggests he go as himself, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Another says no, he should wear a thong. The conversation deteriorates from there, a perfect example of the star power surrounding the 34-year-old CNN medical correspondent.


OK, so his hair has that slightly rumpled look—that these women obviously find sexy—most mornings when he enters our living rooms and workstations on his “Paging Dr. Gupta” segments. And sure, his young, ethnic good looks that earned him a spot on People magazine’s 2003 “Simply the Best” list are a far cry from most other television medical reporters—a largely white, male, middle-aged crowd. And his breezy style makes us forget his specialty is neurosurgery, but really: A Yahoo! group with at least 35 devoted fans chatting about whether or not he has a girlfriend? A blog page on InfoHunks? “I just want to know anything about Dr. Gupta. Is he a Hindu? What [is] his favorite color, or car or food?” one fan posted. How many physicians can claim this kind of following?


Few of the growing number of physician–reporters experience such worship, but most can relate to Gupta’s celebrity status. These physicians enter our lives via cable lines and satellite dishes, and increasingly we hinge medical decisions on what they report. But most of them say communicating to thousands—sometimes millions—of viewers is not much different from what they do one-on-one in the exam room.


EXPERT REPORTING


Fifteen years ago, there weren’t many medical reporters—let alone health correspondents who had gone to medical school, says Dr. Teresa Schraeder, a fellow at the New England Journal of Medicine and a former medical reporter for ABC-affiliate WCVB in Boston. Schraeder is about to publish a scientific study on how physicians think medical journalism impacts themselves, their patients and health-care delivery.


“And now, as you know, it’s just pervasive. I think medical reporters have become major disseminators of medical information and, in some ways, have become public health educators. The beginnings of both professions, we’re really public health servants and educators, so I do think it’s a natural relationship,” she says. “It is understandable that physicians, particularly in their role as public health educators, would want to be journalists.”


And there’s no question that TV stations want physicians to be journalists too. Why? Medical news sells ads. A recent study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law found that 40 percent of viewers followed medical stories “very” or “somewhat” closely over six years. Shannon Brownlee, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, opined in the Washington Post that the unfortunate, unwritten rule in print and TV journalism is that “if your ratings are low, run a medical story. If your ratings are really low, run two.” So if stations from markets both large and small can call on “our medical reporter, Dr. So-and-So,” to wade through the daily barrage of health news, all the better in many cases.


“You’re probably the worst-quality reporter they have at the station, but you bring a professional level that editors want,” says Dr. Harlan Gibbs, a Los Angeles emergency-room physician whose television and radio news reporting has won him a local Emmy award. “That’s why I think it’s important that physicians are medical reporters—we still hopefully know what is good medicine and what’s not.”


Dr. Lillian Beard, a pediatrician in the Washington, D.C.-suburb Silver Spring, reports medical news on the city’s ABC-7 News station an average of three times a week. She says viewers get more medical information from the TV these days than from their physicians. “Consumers are taking a more active role in determining their health destiny. It’s not a matter of going to the doctor and someone dictating and giving a prescription, and that’s the end of it. We’re much better informed.”


Because of this change, she—and many other physician–reporters—think M.D.s and D.O.s make the best medical reporters, “but then I recognize that when I say that, I’m reflecting a bias.” Most say that, as physicians, they can better grasp the underlying science of health coverage and skillfully wade through the overwhelming number of pitches from medical journals, pharmaceutical manufacturers and other physicians hawking “medical breakthroughs.” Beard says her degree and training have also allowed her to see a real story where others haven’t.


“Because I am a physician, there’s a credibility that I enter with…. I don’t have to try to find the ‘aha factor’ in that story angle to the same extent. I’m able to say, ‘Well, this is really over-hyped.’ …SARS was an excellent example. No matter where you turned…there were always three or four SARS stories, and you would see file footage of people with masks, and you saw Asians all the time, so there were just certain conclusions that one would draw immediately…. It was absolutely necessary that it was reported—absolutely, without question. Whether it was necessary to have 300 stories in two days about it, I don’t know.


“I did a couple of stories on SARS. And one of the things…had to do with children and how it may have impacted children differently, because there had not been child deaths in an early study that was done…. So I thought that by doing that aspect of it, at least someone would say, ‘Oh, well, you mean then there are people who had the SARS virus who recovered,’ or what-have-you….


“No one was reporting about that until weeks after…. But you see, they probably got the information when I got it…. Because I was a physician, I could immediately see the news value as well as the greater public health value of the story.”


But that’s not to say that only physicians do the job well, Gupta says. “I think there are terrific medical reporters, first of all, out there. Really top-notch medical reporters who do the work. But I do think that going to medical school and really having seen some of these issues and patients firsthand, working in hospitals, is key to being able to do this well and lend that degree of authority to it,” he says. “And that brings up the point that I think is important, which is that I think doctors who practice and take care of patients regularly are the best people to do this sort of thing. That may be a little bit counterintuitive, but I don’t think you should just go to medical school and then do this sort of thing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to anybody. I mean, you’re a doctor, and now you should practice medicine, but if you want to use that knowledge and experience in different ways, I think that’s very fair.”


Dr. Timothy Johnson, who calls himself a medical journalist—not a reporter—for ABC News, is one of the few who has given up his practice for a career on television. The emergency-room physician stopped practicing in 1984, having already spent 12 years on air, which makes him one of the grandfathers of physician-reporting many young TV physicians say they grew up watching.


“Ultimately, [ending my practice] was kind of a gut-level decision,” he says. Many patients were beginning to recognize him in the emergency room, and ABC made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The network allowed him to work from Boston, where he lives, instead of New York City, where the news operations are based. “I got into it by accident, and it took me a while to realize what an opportunity I had been given. Obviously in what I do, I am primarily a medical journalist…but in my heart I’m a physician.”


Most physician–reporters agree with Gupta on this issue, though, and you’d be just as likely to find them in front of exam tables as you would teleprompters. Gupta is the associate chief of neurosurgery at Emory University’s Grady Memorial Hospital, where he teaches residents and cares for patients as high profile as Dan Snyder, the Atlanta Thrashers hockey player who underwent emergency surgery and died after a September 2003 car accident.


Beard says she “absolutely” considers herself a physician first and reporter second, but then says, “If I had to identify one thing, I’m not sure which it would be.” Yet she emphasizes her physician-first point when she interrupts an interview to check on a patient whose wails have suddenly overpowered the hum of the ventilation system in her busy office. The honors lining her office walls—“Washington’s Top Doctors” reads one, “[Maryland’s] Top 100 Women” says another—also speak to her dedication to her patients, some of whom are the children of children she cared for early in her career.


“No matter what I’m doing, I am a physician. I don’t turn that off at all,” she says. “I am a physician. There are times when I’m at the station, I just turn my pager to vibrate, but I’m still on call. You can’t be an occasional physician, because what will happen is you will start to lose touch with the real patient. You start losing some of your clinical skills and knowledge. It’s a tool that you have to keep sharpened if you want to use it.… I keep my skills sharp by doing both. You can do both.”


THE TELEPROMPTER'S APPEAL


So if physicians are not ready to leave the exam room fully, why even bother with broadcasting?


Most TV-physicians fell into the jobs like Johnson did. “It’s one of those strange stories of a total accident,” Johnson says of the offer in 1972 from a colleague at Massachusetts General Hospital to host a local, 30-minute call-in show. When producers at ABC’s “Good Morning America” asked him to appear on air, the rest became his TV history, which he’s still working on.


It was a chance meeting that brought Gupta in front of the camera. He met CNN then-chairman Tom Johnson while serving as a White House Fellow in the late 1990s, and the two began discussing how people get their medical information. “I was interested in that as well, which is why I was at the White House working on various projects with Mrs. Clinton at that time,” Gupta says.


By the summer of 2001, the CNN leader had convinced the young physician to give up his new neurosurgery practice in his native Michigan and move to Atlanta to begin a different kind of medical career. “You know, when you decide to do neurosurgery, pretty much that’s what you’re deciding to do,” Gupta says. “I spent a decade of my life, essentially, training to do that…. I thought [news] was an interesting thing that I wanted to be involved with, but I never dreamed that I’d be involved with it to the degree that I am today.”


Dr. Brian McDonough, a medical reporter since 1989 on Fox 29 News in Philadelphia, had sought out broadcasting jobs since residency, but even so, his life is far from what he expected. He was working toward a Ph.D. in English when a rejection from the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee made him consider medical school. “I learned that I loved family practice because, think about it, it’s communicating.”


So for two full days and three half-days a week, he directs the family practice residency program at Temple University-affiliated St. Francis Hospital. “But then [on my half-days], I go home, shower, put on nicer clothes and head to the station from 3 to 11 p.m.”


Gupta has a similar schedule. “Sometimes it’s 50-50. Sometimes it’s 60-40 one way or 60-40 the other…. The best way I can sort of liken it to something is people who are in academic practices who also conduct a basic science laboratory or do some kind of research as well. CNN and media is that for me. I still practice medicine, but…I now spend [time] in my own sort of laboratory, which is television.”


Jumping from studio to hospital is a humbling experience, McDonough says. “You go from being on TV, where you know everything, and then you get to a patient, and it’s not clear-cut like TV or radio…. [And] they’re both careers where they want you when they want you. They don’t lend themselves to having a summer home.”


And there are other similarities between the two jobs. “The underlying principles can be similar in that you’re trying to sort out what is the truth,” Johnson says.
That’s not always the easiest thing to do when producers are pushing for sexy, medical breakthrough stories
or scary disease tales to sell ads. McDonough says this is particularly true during sweeps months. But, he says he’ll do whatever story his producers want, as long as he can add a professional perspective. It’s important to get information to viewers, he says, but just as in medicine, his first concern is their welfare.


Schraeder says having physicians in the newsroom can help temper the sweeps and ratings hype, and most physician–reporters would agree.
“The great thing about it is that, as a doctor, you can throw in your own two cents on an issue,” Gibbs says, adding that he might save 10 or 15 seconds at the end of a report to debunk a study or offer an opinion. “If you’re doing it as a doctor, you’ve been through four years of medical school and residency. You know what’s right and wrong when it comes to medicine.”


And it’s not the reporters causing the sensationalism, Gupta says. “A lot of times I will say some of the writing that goes into these things—the teases especially, the tease of an upcoming story—may be construed as being overly hyping. But the bottom line is: Is this a story that’s important to people or not? And if it gets them to watch it, then I think that’s important.”


Besides promo writers, Gupta finds fault in his own community of physicians. “It’s very interesting. When we have doctors on as guests who are not television people, the sort of universal sentiment among the medical unit is that those are the folks who tend to hype things the most…. Especially if it’s their own product, [they’ll say], ‘This will lead to the end of heart failure as we know it.’ …I won’t even say who it is, because he’s a very, very well-respected cardiologist in the country, and we interviewed him for a segment we were doing, and he said, ‘We have started a revolution in medicine today.’”


Both Johnson and Gibbs admit there are physicians who look at TV reporting as a way to build their practices. “Let’s face it. If CBS comes to you and asks you your opinion, the impression is you must be good,” Gibbs says.
And Gupta says there are those patients who think it’s cool their physicians are on TV. Of course, he says, there are also those who say, “‘You know, I want my doctor thinking about my procedure every moment. And when he’s on television, he’s not thinking about it.’”


Gibbs says it’s some of these ethical issues that make him support Johnson’s idea to create a certification process for medical reporters—including physicians. He envisions a certification exam that would ensure journalists have a basic knowledge of both medicine and media.


“Each physician who does this has to figure out how to do this in the most ethical manner,” Johnson says.


ANSWERING THE CAMERA'S CALL


If you’re a physician interested in being a journalist or correspondent, there are only a few resources to turn to. The American Medical Association hosts the annual Medical Communications and Health Reporting Conference—this year’s is set for Las Vegas in April—at which physicians can get tips for becoming better speakers in the media. There’s also the National Association of Medical Communicators, which offers courses on how to break into the business. Gibbs sits on its board of directors. “I wound up teaching the guy who wound up replacing me at CBS,” he says. Students may also want to consider doing a medical reporting rotation (see “Training for TV,” p. 15).


Beard points interested medical graduates to journalism schools. “You know, they need to really pursue it in the most professional way, just as they pursued becoming a physician…,” she says. “It’s a very competitive niche of the market…. This is not for the faint of heart. They look at any on-air talent as someone who might be doing something for them.”


Physicians learn pretty quickly that the news business—especially broadcast news—is a fickle friend. You’ve got to be the right face at the right time. “It’s an age-driven business. It’s a sex-driven business,” says Dr. Steve Salvatore, a medical reporter at Fox 5 in New York City, and Gupta’s predecessor at CNN. “The lifespan in this is very, very short.”


Beard says she knows she serves at the pleasure of someone higher in seniority who might decide tomorrow she’s not what the station needs.
“There is no security whatsoever,” Salvatore agrees. “You could get hired today and fired this afternoon. Your boss could love you, but he could get fired tomorrow.” Still, he whistles on the way to work. “They’ll probably kick me out before I’m ready to go.”


The payoffs, while not monetary in value, can be great. The job is “just a hoot,” Gibbs says.
Last year, Gupta rode his CNN opportunity all the way to Iraq, where he spent part of the war embedded with the U.S. Navy’s Devil Docs medical unit. As the only neurosurgeon, he was called to duty several times to patch up injured soldiers and Iraqi citizens—something his online fan club lauds him for, but for which he was criticized by some journalism ethicists.


“Certainly as journalists, we came here to cover the story, not to be the story,” Gupta told viewers in April 2003, reporting from south of Baghdad. “[But] medically and morally, I thought that was the right thing to do…. I play a small part. These doctors over here play a very large part.”
Whether covering the news from a war-torn nation or from the security of an anchor chair, physicians say the job does feed the ego. “But, there’s something to be [said about being] able to move in obscurity,” Gibbs says. “You want to be able to go to a restaurant and spit on yourself without everyone noticing.”


McDonough also relishes the off-camera time. “Jon Bon Jovi was in the other day, and you’re meeting those people, but then [station managers are] getting serious about where we are in the ratings, and it’s like, ‘Does it really matter?’ So it’s nice to go back to the hospital.”


Still, the perks are great. “Given Christmas party choice, [my wife will] go to the media one as opposed to the doctors’,” McDonough says. And the station’s box seats at Eagles games are pretty sweet too. “So that’s the fun side of it. And when you’re giving health advice, there’s no downside, because that’s positive.”


Positive for sure, Beard says. “I’ve also fulfilled my dream of being a writer, a correspondent, reporter, expert. I mean, it’s like, wow.” Wow, indeed. Perhaps an online fan club is next?
Jennifer Zeigler is a senior writer with The New Physician. Direct questions and comments to tnp@amsa.org.