In Depth

Experience Counts for CBS’ Dr. Lapook

Correspondent Draws Lessons From His Practice

Three years ago, CBS Evening News named Jon LaPook, M.D., its medical correspondent, reporting on health care and medical news alongside anchor Katie Couric each week.

In addition to continuing his medical practice in New York City as a board-certified gastroenterologist and attending physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. LaPook has become a host on the network’s new Web site CBS Doc Dot Com, part of CBSNews.com.

In the midst of a very busy day recently, Dr. LaPook spoke with TelevisionWeek special correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the current state of health care journalism from his unique perspective as both practicing physician and broadcast journalist.

TelevisionWeek: What do you see as the difference between health care journalism and medical journalism?

Dr. Jonathan LaPook: I’ve never thought about the semantics of that, but I guess health care journalism is more policy issues. I do both.

A lot of what I do is looking through the journals and reading the alerts and you try to figure out what will be the important stories and how can I translate them for everybody. What are the stories that are important enough, that affect enough people and have a clear enough message so that people don’t want to throw a brick through the TV set? I want them to walk away understanding something.

TVWeek: Let’s focus on health care journalism.

Dr. LaPook: Health care journalism would be more enterprise issues. For example, we have a collaboration with BusinessWeek, and last January or February, we did a story that I just loved. It was about statins, you know, like Lipitor, and are they overused. Some people say it’s the greatest thing since sliced cheese, but we took a look at it and asked, “Are we looking at this correctly?” I loved that piece because we pulled the microscope back and did a deep dive and we interviewed tons of people. It was more about policy and assumptions. It turns out that if you had a heart attack, definitely statins are of use, but if you haven’t or you’re at low risk for heart disease, then taking them to lower cholesterol is probably not worth it. That’s still a big argument going on now.

I do enjoy the big issues and I want to be doing more stories about them.

TVWeek: How do you balance being a doctor with being a health care broadcaster?

Dr. LaPook: Logistically, it’s challenging and interesting. The first thing I did, and this has been since August 2006, I froze my practice. I was concerned that I would be taking on too much.

So no new consultations. In general, I see patients from 8 o’clock in the morning till about
1 in the afternoon. My offices are at 60th and Madison [in Manhattan], so when I’m done there, then it’s easy to go over to 57th and 10th to the CBS News studio and start my day there. I finish up at about 7 o’clock. CBS has been very good about understanding that my first priority is the health of my patients. Sometimes if I have an emergency, that’ll take priority. Today, for instance, I had a funeral of one of my patients. I always go to the funerals of my patients, so I moved my procedures to the afternoon, which meant I wasn’t able to do a story that was breaking today about PSAs and rectal exams for prostate cancer, and they understood.

TVWeek: Your team at CBS?

Dr. LaPook: Yes. The people here have been incredibly understanding, because if they were my patient, that’s what they would want. On the other hand, I take the medical journalism career extremely seriously.

TVWeek: As a doctor, what’s your responsibility as a journalist, treating viewers as a whole rather than a single patient?

Dr. LaPook: It’s a huge responsibility. When [CBS News and Sports President] Sean McManus told me about the job, he told me, “You’re a teacher, but instead of teaching 300 people, you’re going to be teaching millions of people.” I love that challenge, but it’s also a huge responsibility. If I say something wrong to a single patient, I can call him up. If I said something wrong on the air and on the Web to millions of people, it’s hard to correct it. So I spend more time on what not to put on the air than what we do put on the air.

TVWeek: And I’m sure it’s all about how you say it.

Dr. LaPook: Yes, I’m extremely careful. I don’t want to put something on the air about, let’s say, on an early stage-one study on multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s that will raise people’s hopes and then at the end say, “By the way, it’s years away.” We really have a responsibility as journalists and physicians to not hype things, to make sure that we put everything in the right context.

TVWeek: Is there a built-in trust factor that people have for a doctor because they see him on TV, like Dr. LaPook or Dr. Oz or Dr. Gupta?

Dr. LaPook: Well, you know you can trust Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz is the real deal. … When the cameras are off and you’re in a room with him alone, he’s the same guy. What you see on the air is who he is. But back to your question, I know where you’re coming from. You would hope that the same qualities that allow you to become a good doctor are going to also make for a good journalist. What do I do as a physician? I take histories. It’s so important to listen to people. I have found over the years that if you just let people talk, they’ll actually tell you what’s the matter. But you have to be empathetic and you have to look them in the eyes. A lot of those skills are the same skills that are very helpful as a journalist. Talking to people, not assuming that I know what’s going on, not jumping to conclusions, I’ve got to keep an open mind. So I think there’s an initial credibility just because they assume that I’m a doctor and I bring that to the table. But I think on top of that, if you don’t show that you’re thoughtful and careful, they’ll turn you off.

TVWeek: Tell me about your professional relationship with Katie Couric.

Dr. LaPook: She really does care. I think one of the things people don’t realize about Katie is what a terrific writer she is. Many times I’ll see her make a last-minute change, doing this on the fly, literally with 12 seconds to air. Certainly when we have our little chats, we’ll discuss the general topic of what we’re going to talk about, and she’ll always come up with a great suggestion. She has this amazing ability to put herself in the position of the viewer. She’s also been incredibly generous with her time with me, sharing advice.

Everybody at CBS has been great. I work very closely with another Katie there, Katie Boyle, she’s my senior producer. Talk about unsung heroes—she does rewrites, she puts her touches and sometimes writing quite a bit on the scripts I give her. She’s been in there, and [“CBS Evening News” Producer] Rick Kaplan has been just amazing and generous with me.

I think in life it’s good to be a little bit terrified at all times, because that keeps you high on the learning curve, and certainly that’s been the case at CBS. There have been incredibly rewarding times.