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Doctors to Watch

Apr 19, 2010  •  Post A Comment

Physicians are playing an increasingly important role in television news at both the local and national levels, and experienced particularly high visibility this year during coverage of the aftermath of the earthquakwe in Haiti. NewsPro correspondent Elizabeth Jensen profiles some of the current TV doctor-reporters who are making names for themselves on and off the air.

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, CBS News

Dr. Jennifer Ashton was hired as the medical correspondent for CBS News’ “The Early Show” before Executive Producer David Friedman got to the show, but she was one of the elements that stood out for him as he watched the program in advance of taking on his new assignment.

“She pops on TV right away,” he said. “Jen is right up there with the anchors.” Not only is she knowledgeable, he said, but “she’s very easy to understand.” He added, “It’s almost like going to see her in the doctor’s office.”

Ashton, who was previously a medical contributor for Fox News, joined CBS in March 2009; she contributes to other shows on the network in addition to the morning program, and was the network’s medical correspondent in Haiti after the January earthquake.

Although she is on “The Early Show” nearly every day, and is a regular guest expert on woman’s health on the “The Dr. Oz Show,” she also continues to practice medicine. A board-certified physician in obstetrics and gynecology, Ashton is on the attending staff of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, N.J., and has a private practice, Hygeia Gynecology, which treats women for medical and surgical gynecologic conditions.

In coming months, Friedman said, the show may experiment with having Ashton do stories that appeal to men, as well as women. And Ashton may host roundtables or town halls on various issues. “She’s so calm and people really take to her,” Friedman said.

Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News

Dr. Richard Besser joined ABC News as its senior health and medical editor in September 2009, right in the middle of the swine flu story. It was a story he already knew inside and out; before coming to ABC he was the director of the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and from January to June 2009 he served as the CDC’s acting director, leading the agency’s response to the H1N1 influenza outbreak.

“The government’s loss was our gain,” said Jon Banner, the executive producer of “World News With Diane Sawyer.” And, said Banner, “He’s been an incredibly quick study when it comes to the sausage-making part of our business,” learning how to do television. Besser first joined the CDC in 1991, leaving in 1993 for five years to join the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, as the pediatric residency director. He returned to the CDC in 1998.

With so much time at CDC, “It’s very easy for him to get a lot of people on the phone,” Banner said. His contributions so far haven’t been limited to big public health issues; Besser, like other networks’ medical reporters, traveled to Haiti in the wake of that country’s earthquake. And Banner singled out Besser’s recent reporting on the possible dangers of the Fosamax osteoporosis drug, noting that the reports started with a tip, and ended with the FDA alerting doctors to be on the lookout for possible risk of fractures. “He really stuck with it,” Banner said.

Dr. Sapna Parikh, WNYW-TV, New York

Dianne Doctor, the vice president for news at Fox-owned WNYW-TV in New York City, hired Dr. Sapna Parikh, at her previous station, CBS-owned WCBS-TV. Parikh left to be the medical correspondent for the Fox station in February 2006, and Doctor followed in April 2008.

“She’s very intertwined with the public health issues in the city,” Doctor said of Parikh, who completed an internship in general surgery at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center before going into broadcasting, and is currently working on her master’s degree in public health at Hunter College in the city. “She’s a step ahead of other reporters, because she has access to so much information,” Doctor said.

Parikh, who is also at home filing a report from Central Park demonstrating the best running shoes to avoid injury, appears nearly every day on the station’s morning show, “Good Day New York,” and a couple of times a week on the afternoon and evening newscasts. Doctor likes Parikh’s ability to “take a complicated medical issue and translate it into simple terms for people.”

In recent weeks, Parikh has been working with a group of Jersey City, N.J., middle school teachers who wrote in wanting to participate in the “Dr. Oz Weight Loss Challenge.” (WNYW carries “The Dr. Oz Show” in New York.) Her team has been following the group’s progress every few weeks, through the May finale. “She’s done a great job of tying and making relevant stories from ‘Dr. Oz,’” Doctor said.

Dr. Maria Simbra, KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh

Dr. Maria Simbra, the Emmy award-winning medical reporter for KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh, started out as a physician, with a private practice and academic career in neurology. But in 2003, a year after beginning reporting for the station, she also received her master’s degree in journalism and mass communication. (She’s since been pursuing a master’s degree in public health, as well.)

Simbra, vice president of the National Association of Medical Communicators board, “definitely has taken that part of her life seriously. It’s important to her and I think that probably comes through,” said Christopher Pike, KDKA’s vice president and general manager. From 2005-07, Simbra also served on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Pittsburgh has “an above average interest” in medical stories, said Pike, thanks to the large regional medical community based in the area. Not only are there well-respected treatment facilities in the city, but also a significant amount of research is being done in cancer, diabetes and regenerative medicine, among other fields. “There’s an abundance of medical stories,” he said. And a proportionately older population is keenly interested in health news, he said.

“Dr. Maria helps us fill that need,” Pike said. “She’s respected, she’s been here awhile, and being a doctor herself adds credibility to her reports. She’s also accepted in the medical community, which probably gives her access that others might not get. She’s passionate about it, and I think that comes through.”

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