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Dr. Sanjay Gupta Uses Surgeon and Journalist Roles to Educate and Inspire

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Scientists and science journalists have a lot in common. Both do huge amounts of research and tackle complicated subjects, accuracy and credibility are paramount and the end result has the potential to improve, even save, countless lives.

Each of these professions is time-consuming and challenging on its own, but somehow Dr. Sanjay Gupta manages to balance his dual career as a practicing neurosurgeon—he is associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and regularly performs surgery at Emory and Grady hospitals in Atlanta—and chief medical correspondent for CNN.

“For nearly 14 years now, I’ve been living at this intersection of medicine and media,” said Gupta, who delivered the annual J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture on Mar. 25 to an overflow crowd in Masur Auditorium. “Medicine and media, to me, very much fall along the same spectrum. I think about them both as opportunities to educate people, whether I’m educating people in the office about a particular problem they may have, in the hospital or doing it via TV or through articles.”

Gupta, a multiple Emmy Award-winning journalist, has reported on stories that sometimes take him to war zones and other dangerous places. In 2003, he traveled with the U.S. Navy’s “Devil Docs” medical unit in Iraq, where he alternated between wartime correspondent and frontline surgeon. He has covered natural disasters from hurricanes to tsunamis, traveled to more than 100 countries, been shot at and negotiated his way out of danger, learned new languages and embraced new cultures.

Just weeks after starting at CNN, the 9/11 attacks occurred and the network relied on Gupta’s expertise as a practicing doctor. “If you present facts, if you present science—it can help calm the fears of a very worried nation,” he said.

Gupta presents the facts in an engaging way that he hopes will inform and inspire. To test whether a topic will make sense to a general audience, he often considers how he’d explain it to his curious 9-year-old daughter. He also intends for each story to foster discussion. “It’s not designed to end at the 2-minute mark when a story ends,” he said. “It’s designed to stay in your mind for a while, make you think about it, make you share what you’ve just learned with other people.”

Science Journalism

After his candid, at times humorous talk, Gupta sat down for a Q&A session moderated by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who happens to have been Gupta’s genetics professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in 1989. The two chatted about how Gupta picks and prioritizes stories.

Gupta chooses stories that affect a sizeable population or profoundly affect a smaller group and he considers how best to interest viewers. When reporting on Parkinson’s, for example, he explained how the disease affects a small part of the brain that doesn’t produce enough dopamine and the possibility of repopulating that part of the brain with dopamine-producing cells. “All of a sudden you start to create this narrative and the brain itself becomes a character,” he said.

“People listen and they expect [the facts],” said Gupta. “They want to know I’ve done my homework and when they hear from me, they can count on it to be accurate.”

It’s also important to take advantage of the public’s sudden interest in a topic. Current events can provide ideal teachable moments. When President Bill Clinton had heart problems, for example, the network used the public’s heightened interest to report on cardiovascular disease, cholesterol and proper diet.

Sometimes, ongoing health concerns such as Ebola and antibiotic resistance get overshadowed by other big news stories, said Gupta, but the media continues to gather information and report on developments at the opportune time.

“Just because you’re not seeing it on the front page of the web site or it’s not the lead story for the hour, doesn’t mean we’re not covering it still,” said Gupta. “We have to provide a really full, accurate picture of what’s happening at a time when people’s attention spans are focused on it.”

Hot Topics: From Vaccinations to Medical Marijuana

Collins and Gupta also probed some impassioned topics including public reluctance over vaccinations and the controversy over medical marijuana.

Gupta said he’s been surprised that some science journalists have equivocated on the need to immunize children. It’s not necessary to present both sides of an issue if one side is undeniably wrong, he said. After having kids, Gupta said his own research reinforced the importance of vaccinating children. “In the end, I got my children vaccinated fully and on schedule and, when I said that part of the story and explained it, I think it maybe hit the mark a little bit more than before.”

One topic that requires an open mind, said Gupta, is medical marijuana. After conferring with patients and scientists, Gupta said he believes marijuana, in its non-psychoactive form, might help patients, particularly when all other options have failed. “So much of the studies and hypotheses were looking at the potential harm of medicinal marijuana and not so much at the benefit,” he said. “People should not be denied a treatment that could potentially benefit them.”

A question likely on everyone’s minds was how Gupta manages to juggle his two demanding jobs. “Having a split life like this makes me love each one of these professions more than I think I could love them by themselves,” he said. “Each has made me better at the other job.”

When covering a story for CNN, hearing from hospital colleagues and patients helps inform his reporting. And, he no longer thinks of a patient as simply a chart number. “Being a journalist, when I approach my patients now, I’m much more curious about their [personal] stories…I enjoy medicine more as a result of that.”

Gupta said one regret is that his intense schedule prevents him from spending more time with his wife and three children, though he said his family remains understanding and supportive of his twin careers and busy travel schedule. “I don’t do these things because I’m an adventurer, thump-on-your-chest thrill-seeker,” he said. “You do these things because you hope they make a difference.”

The Rall lecture honors Dr. Joseph “Ed” Rall, 1920-2008, a scientist who devoted 40 years of his life to intramural research at NIH. Rall, who came to NIH in 1955, founded NIH’s Clinical Endocrinology Branch and also served as NIH deputy director for intramural research.

The webcast of Gupta’s lecture can be seen at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=15937&bhcp=1.

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