Man of Medicine Makes His Mark on TV

Mar 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

For breaking news on Sanjay Gupta being eyed for an appointment to surgeon general of the United states, click here.
If Dr. Sanjay Gupta had to give up one of his two professions—neurosurgeon or journalist—he says it would be an easy call: Journalism would be the first to go. “I love being a doctor; I still feel at the end of the day that that’s my life’s calling,” he said.

But for now, no one is asking the 37-year-old Dr. Gupta to choose, and he has cobbled together an unusual schedule that leaves him time to do brain surgery and related medicine half-time, while devoting the rest of his professional schedule to an increasingly packed list of media outlets that makes him one of the most widely seen and read health journalists around.

In addition to his role as CNN’s chief medical correspondent, which puts him on-air with breaking stories all week and has him hosting the weekend “House Call With Dr. Sanjay Gupta,” he writes an every-other-week column for CNN sister publication Time magazine. A deal to contribute occasional medical stories to “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” began in January. In April, he will publish his first book, “Chasing Life” (Warner Books), an examination of the known science to staving off the process of aging.

Some doctors search out the celebrity that being a media star brings; Dr. Gupta, who grew up in Michigan, turned down his first opportunity to do television.

As his medical training at the University of Michigan neared its end, Dr. Gupta spent a year as a White House Fellow, delving into the issues of health care policy. That, he says, was his first insight into the possibilities of “delivering health care messages in ways other than the doctor’s office.” Out of that came some writing opportunities for small publications on policy-related issues.

After that year ended in 1998, Dr. Gupta could have headed to CNN, where network President Tom Johnson, a onetime official in the Lyndon Johnson White House, was revamping the medical unit. But Dr. Gupta returned to Michigan instead. “I really wanted to go home and practice neurosurgery,” he said.

By the summer of 2001, he was willing to give television a try. With the Sept. 11 terror attacks that followed, Dr. Gupta, in addition to reporting on the latest medical developments, frequently found himself covering such topics as anthrax attacks against media outlets. While an embedded journalist covering the Iraq war in 2003, he ditched the notebook for surgical gloves five times, operating on both Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers. He also covered the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

Back in Atlanta, Dr. Gupta makes his schedule work through efficient compartmentalizing. Mondays are always surgery days at Grady Memorial Hospital, a Level 1 trauma center, where he is associate chief of neurosurgery. He also is assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University, with which Grady is affiliated. Half-days Wednesdays he sees patients for consultations; other surgery days dot his schedule depending on the week.

The rest of the time is for media work. “I don’t waste a lot of time,” he said. “When I come in to work, whether for CNN or the magazine, I really come to work. I show up, work hard and go home to my family.” (His wife recently gave birth to the couple’s second daughter.)

The two sides of his life are more similar than many realize, he said. “Your credibility and diligence and hard work are of paramount importance in both,” he said. But more specifically, the media work, he said, is “an extension” of the patient-

education aspect of being a doctor. Being able to communicate health literacy clearly, he said, is the same whether it is being done on the air or in the doctor’s office.

Just being in an academic center day in and day out, hearing what’s happening, helps him keep up to speed with developments in his field and other specialties. “There’s no substitute for just being in the element,” he said.

There are critics who argue that for a media outlet with 24 hours of time to fill, CNN spends precious little of it on the substantive issues of policy that Dr. Gupta first immersed himself in. Dr. Gupta said he doesn’t disagree with some of the criticism. Policy stories, he said, “are hard to do in television. Sometimes they don’t have the visual elements, story lines that are translatable to television.” And morning shows, he said, are focused on “news you can use.” One of Dr. Gupta’s major CNN initiatives has been an ongoing campaign against obesity, dubbed “Fit Nation.”

Not Oversimplifying

But there are still ways to tell complex stories, he said. For an upcoming CNN special on the problems of Americans without health insurance, Dr. Gupta and his team spent several weeks in California, looking at the state’s proposed reforms aimed at providing health coverage for all state residents. That Arnold Schwarzenegger is the colorful governor of the state makes it an easier story to tell on television, Dr. Gupta said.

Another special airing March 24-25, dubbed “Grady’s Anatomy,” capitalizes on the popularity of the ABC series “Grey’s Anatomy.” But in addition to looking at the real lives of hospital residents, Dr. Gupta said the special examines the heated debate going on in the graduate medical training world about the recent push to limit the lengthy hours residents work, in order to reduce errors caused by sleep deprivation.

“Chasing Life,” which will be an April CNN special, didn’t turn out as it started, which was as a more philosophical look at the idea of immortality, “the one thing we can’t have, although so many of us want it,” Dr. Gupta said.

After many iterations, he said, the book morphed into a guide to the technology of living longer, from the promises of stem cell research to nanotechnology, coupled with a practical guide to living a healthy life into older age. That means stressing the importance of getting screened for cancer or high blood pressure, eating well, exercising and cutting out known risks such as smoking.

“Often, we’re so focused on touchdowns, knockouts, home runs and cures, we are sometimes forgetting the obvious. I’ll give you the technology but I want to spend a lot of time making sure you’re optimized before I get into technology,” Dr. Gupta said, sounding less like a journalist chasing headlines and more like a family doctor dispensing the sensible basics.

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