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KNBC’s Longtime Medical Reporter Hensel Wants Information to Empower Viewers

Bruce Hensel, M.D., is one of the rarest hyphenates in broadcast journalism—a practicing physician who is also a full-time medical correspondent for a major-market television station.
Dr. Hensel has been on the air at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles since 1987, reporting on a wide range of issues that affect viewers, including the increase in autism, new treatments for diabetes and the dangers of plastic surgery.

Board-certified in both internal and emergency medicine, he teaches medicine at UCLA and does one shift a week in the emergency room at San Dimas, Calif., Community Hospital. He studied journalism at UCLA and Columbia University before attending medical school at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and undertook his internship and residency training at Wadsworth Veterans Administration Hospital and at UCLA.

As the station’s medical, science and health editor, Dr. Hensel’s segments appear regularly on the morning show and on the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. editions of the Channel 4 News. He spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Hillary Atkin from Thailand, where he is researching a documentary he plans to produce.

TelevisionWeek: How do you balance being a doctor and being an on-air broadcast journalist?
Dr. Bruce Hensel: On the face it seems like they are two different careers, one taking care of people and then the other producing and disseminating information. It’s been a matter of evolution. At the beginning, it took me 17 hours to get through one script. It becomes easier. My time management has gotten better. I’m very good at priority management and operating on deadline. But I won’t answer the phone if I’m with a patient. Aside from time management, if you take a look at medicine and journalism as pyramids, the top tier is knowledge. I read 40 to 50 journals a month, which is helpful for both my medical and journalism career. I’m a week ahead because I get journals before other physicians. I’m very in tune with what’s going on in the community, and very connected to [the Los Angeles County] Department of Health Services. I’m on planning and emergency disaster committees. Over the years I’ve found the two can become synergistic and can benefit my patients. I’ve chosen emergency medicine for a reason. When I’m on duty, I’m on, and when I’m off, I don’t have to answer patients’ calls. I couldn’t have a full-time pediatric or internal medicine practice and still keep my TV job.

TVWeek: How did you get started?
Dr. Hensel: I grew up in New York and studied acting, writing, and journalism before med school. I had acted on some soaps. I had come out from New York to California to certify in emergency medicine, and began doing a TV show called “Sex, Drugs, Rock ’n’ Roll” with Paraquat Kelley that aired from 1-3 a.m. on KNBC. It had musical performances and I answered medical questions about sex and drugs. As a result, I was offered a job at WNBC, but my parents had moved here. I reluctantly got on the plane, and my seatmate was the president of KNBC. I told him what was going on—that I really wanted to stay in Los Angeles—and he offered me a job. It was a serendipitous flight.

TVWeek: Any way you look at it, it must have been a big transition.
Dr. Hensel: Once I started doing broadcast medical news, the light bulb went off: It appealed to my creative side and I wanted to help people and was a communicator. I do medicine because I love it, but my No. 1 job is KNBC. On average, I am on the 5 p.m. news every day, the 6 p.m. two to three times a week, and the morning show, “Today in L.A.,” three times a week during sweeps. I’m on the11 p.m. once a week, with a highly produced story. I think we do news best. I don’t go on camera on why Hillary Clinton cried. We do legitimate medical stories. It’s got to be a scientific story. The way we report news is extremely credible. One of the most difficult things in doing medical news is, if you don’t investigate who funded the study, you’re not being fair to the public. It’s unfortunate there are so few physician-broadcasters. Although many reporters do a good job, they don’t have the training. I’m lucky to have a job and happy to do what I do. What used to scare me, how to put together information in a two- to three-minute spot, now excites me. If there’s a major breaking story and I’m at the hospital, they will send a crew. Being at NBC keeps me connected to the community, keeps me sharp and plays a role in how the public and my peer group sees me as a practicing physician. It helps get me access to stories and the heads-up on stories that many others never hear about. But I still love medicine and doing it. And I love to do specials. I love challenge, doing things that haven’t been reported on before.

TVWeek: How do you determine which stories get on the air?
Dr. Hensel: If my news director, Bob Long, came to me and asked me to fill 12 hours, I could fill it, because the fact is there’s so much out there. From head to toe, there are so many subjects. My process is to read all the journals, all e-mails. I get about 500 e-mails a day. I look to see if the story is interesting, local, is it new, and then evaluate. I look at the wires every morning for reports released by government and consumer organizations. Then there is the morning meeting, and input from managers on health-related stories. I do about four different categories. Breaking news, say if Gov. Schwarzenegger gets surgery. Then, in-depth looks at subjects like plastic surgery or a new heart gene or autism, stories that are interesting and important. We also do “scam busters,” an investigation where people are being ripped off. Also feature stories of interest to a great many people. I’ve been at this for 25 years, and look to see who does this affect. I’ve got a list, and my producer comes up with ideas on what to investigate and we discuss.

TVWeek: What trends do you see in what viewers are interested in?
Dr. Hensel: About 90% of the trends tend to be in disease management. Aside from heart disease and cancer, there are also diabetes and arthritis—illnesses people live with, along with other chronic conditions. It then becomes about how well you can live, the quality of life, like which diet works and how to treat arthritis. How do I get through the day in the happiest way? I’ve had people complain: There are good options, but it depends on your personal situation and you should always discuss treatments with your doctor. You can’t make a decision based only on what you see on the daily news. I don’t think temporal, seasonal stories have that much resonance, and we have moved away from that. But there is a lot of competition from different platforms with different information. People are pickier, they want precise information. I’m really happy we evaluate it that way. When a lot of people get sick from the flu, that is important.

TVWeek: What medical news has the most impact on your audience?
Dr. Hensel: Our mission is to empower people with enough information to get involved in their own health and give it in a way that is usable in their own lives. It looks contradictory on the surface, with more treatments and tests than ever before. It’s not easy to access. The key is to distill information in a way people can use it as soon as they leave their television sets. The environment has a bigger impact in many more ways. It’s not just the green movement coming to the forefront. Diabetes and autism are on such major rises that the environment has to be playing a role. We did an Emmy Award-winning half-hour special called “Autism: The Silent Epidemic.” This year we did a special called “On the Verge,” which I really loved, and it just won a Golden Mike Award. It was about three areas of medicine that are on the verge of a cure: diabetes, a brain cancer vaccine and a simple treatment for sickle cell anemia—three diseases that used to be deadly in which local researchers are making a difference and having a major impact. We’ve done four or five stories on autism in the past year. Many parents feel children get autism from the mercury in vaccines. Yet it was removed in 2001 and autism is still on the rise. Now they believe there is something else in vaccines causing it, but there’s no proof. The CDC has studied it for 10 years.

TVWeek: What are the other key issues now that affect people’s health?
Dr. Hensel: Environment and genetics is an ongoing story. I counsel people to consider potential dangers. Fire retardants are meant to save lives, but the evidence now implies—although it is not conclusive—that certain materials may increase the risk of cancers. People’s reaction is absolute horror. With elective surgery, when you do invasive things, you have to weigh the risk-benefit ratio. Medicines cause deaths but save many lives. Vioxx is off the market because the company didn’t report early dangers. There should be better pre-market studies and more disclosure. If you can do a story that informs and results in change, you’ve really done your job. The FDA doesn’t do a lousy job; it’s under-manned and under-funded. It’s easy to get new medicine applications, but difficult to look at food and clothing.
Another story of great interest is the pharmaceutical companies’ impact. They bring to free samples to doctors, but is their influence properly monitored?

TVWeek: How do you feel about celebrity-driven health stories?
Dr. Hensel: What it amounts to is in order to report well, you have to be a highly trained journalist to know how to check facts. People hear the headlines. I truly believe rushing to judgment without the facts can be dangerous, misleading or inappropriate. Being a physician and a journalist, I ford the stream. I will never report on something I learn as a doctor if I take care of a famous person—I will not report on that. My credibility is the single most important thing to me and KNBC.

TVWeek: Who do you see as the competition for what you do?
Dr. Hensel: I don’t see anybody as competition. To me, the more the better. If there were more really informed medical reporters out there, it’s all the better for the public. I’m happily established and comfortable and supported at my station. There’s nobody else who has the medical experience in Southern California, and it’s a shame. Stations are driven by different agendas. Some do adequate jobs by using VNRs (video news releases), but my gosh, how could you not have investigated that? I’ve been lucky enough to survive and have the support of both the lay public and peer group physicians who respect me, and I can do a better service because of it.