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Nancy Snyderman: Doctor, Journalist, Perpetual Student

Apr 19, 2010  •  Post A Comment

Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News’ chief medical editor since September 2006, attended medical school at the University of Nebraska and did residencies in pediatrics as well as ear, nose and throat surgery at the University of Pittsburgh.

Her TV career began in 1983 at KATV in Little Rock, Ark., around the same time she joined the surgical staff at the University of Arkansas. In 1985 she began reporting on medical issues for ABC News, contributing to “20/20,” “Primetime” and “Good Morning America,” and occasionally co-hosting the morning program. (For a decade, she simultaneously filed medical reports for KPIX-TV, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, where she lived.)

Snyderman left ABC in 2002, after endorsing Tylenol in a radio ad (which she called a mistake), and joined health company Johnson & Johnson as vice president of consumer education. At NBC now, her reports air on “Today,” “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” and MSNBC. The author of three books, Snyderman is also on staff in the Department of the Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania.

She recently discussed her career with NewsPro correspondent Elizabeth Jensen. An edited version of that interview follows.

NewsPro: You had an undergraduate degree in microbiology, and were in the midst of a surgical residency when you started in local television. What prompted that? And when did you decide to make it more of a full-time calling?

Nancy Snyderman: It was a total accident. I was doing a tonsillectomy during my residency at the University of Pittsburgh and I ended up being interviewed on whether tonsillectomies were performed too often. The chief of staff didn’t want to be on TV. By the time I left my residency I had been on air four or five times.

When I got my first job at the University of Arkansas, I approached the NBC affiliate and the ABC affiliate and said, ‘You don’t have any doctor-reporters.’ The ABC affiliate gave me a crack at it for $37.50 an appearance.

To me, television was a lot like sitting at a patient’s bedside: You just talk plain. My job is to make complicated stuff comprehensible without ever talking down to people.

NewsPro: Did you ever have any training in journalism and if not, did you wish you had?

Snyderman: No. … To be a good journalist and to be a really good doctor, you have to have insatiable curiosity and you have to realize you are going to be the perpetual student. If you don’t like to learn and you don’t like to read, neither of these fields is going to be good.

NewsPro: The viewer appetite for health news on television has exploded since you began in TV. But at the same time, sound bites have gotten increasingly shorter. How have you had to adjust? Are consumers still being served?

Snyderman: Consumers are being served, but now instead of having it a la carte, they can choose from a big old buffet, and there’s good stuff and bad stuff coming in from all directions.
[On the shortness of sound bites]: The problem is not to dumb it down so there’s no meat in something you do. I really learned it from Charlie Gibson when I used to co-host “Good Morning America” with him. … You almost have to think that 10 seconds is a really big stretch of time, because if you rush you make your viewer nervous.

NewsPro: With the Internet, consumers have more medical information than ever, much of it conflicting. Is it appropriate for doctors who are also reporters to make recommendations for viewers?

Snyderman: I’m probably more old school than some. I was raised that you have to talk to a patient, to touch a patient. … With the swine flu shot, my advice was, I think people should have gotten it … but when it comes to gout, heart disease, I’m not going there. … For me it’s a very, very black and white line between a personal health issue and a public health issue.

My job is to look at studies that come across and say, ‘I think this has merit and this doesn’t.’

NewsPro: The Haitian earthquake set off a debate among journalism ethicists about whether the medical reporters there — you included — should be treating victims with the cameras rolling. Were you at all conflicted?

Snyderman: I think if you’re doing something to the cameras, playing to it to say ‘watch me,’ yeah, I’ve got an issue. Personally … I was an accidental surgeon; I walked into a situation where there were no doctors. I left my crew and went to work. … I have never done that before, but there were so many damaged and broken people there was no way I, as a surgeon, could have stepped over them and said, ‘Sorry, I’m reporting a story.’

My soul searching wasn’t ‘am I doctor or am I a journalist?’ My torment was, ‘were the decisions I made in the field so fast, so definitive, did I leave some people to die I could have helped and some, in intervening, did I prolong the inevitable?’ My questions I had to wrestle with were much more personal. … I get both sides of this. I have examined it inside and out and I have a very, very clear conscience about what I did.

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