Doc on the box

December 1, 2006

Ready for a break from her medical career, this physician took a difficult leap of faith-and ended up on TV.

We've all turned on our televisions and found a doctor chatting with an anchor, giving a report, or conducting an interview. You may have privately wondered, What kind of doctor are you, anyway? Don't you have enough to do without canoodling with a camera?

I had roughly the same reaction to TV docs until a career hiatus-plus serendipity-led me into part-time medical communications work. Here's my story:

Almost 20 years ago, I went through a rough time in my life. A solo infectious diseases practitioner at a county teaching hospital in southern California, I knew I needed a change-but what?

But what I really needed wasn't a flying leap from one frying pan into another, but a true break from my structured life in order to gain perspective. With no spouse or dependents, no hefty mortgage, and enough savings to keep me going for months, I could do just that.

Once I got over the shock of self-imposed joblessness, working one night a week at a free clinic and trips to Australia and the Philippines (the first for pleasure, the second as a medical volunteer) were healthy starts.

Then, out of the blue, I came across a small ad in the back pages of The New England Journal of Medicine. Lifetime Medical Television, a 50-person production unit in Hollywood, needed a medical editor. At that time, Lifetime cable network aired original medical programs all day Sunday interspersed with prescription drug commercials-formerly a broadcast taboo. The reason for the advertising waiver? The Federal Communications Commission probably figured that no one except medical professionals would bother to watch LMT's weekly fare.

In fact, nothing proved further from the truth. In the late '80s and early '90s, the American public was hungry for quality information about medicine not yet available on the Internet. Surveys showed that 90 percent of Lifetime's Sunday viewers were lay people. Ratings rose, advertising dollars increased, and so did production budgets.

"The War Against Hypertension," my first assignment as a freelance medical editor, was a pharmaceutical-sponsored special. The show was inspired by the then-heated debate over thiazide diuretics vs beta blockers. The program featured a veteran television host, lively field interviews, renal physiology graphics, even a re-creation of an old, abandoned hospital ward where-before blood pressure drugs were available-patients with malignant hypertension often died of heart attacks, intra-cerebral bleeds, and kidney failure.

Before you ask what a medical editor does and what qualified me to be one (aside from basic writing skills and my postgraduate medical training), let me add that no one was taking any big risks in hiring me back in 1987-my starting wage, as I recall, was $25 an hour.

My role included a number of independent research and liaison functions: checking facts, reading transcripts, calling potential interviewees. What I enjoyed most, however, was the close, daily collaboration required to translate medical material into clear and compelling television, and the staff's commitment to get it right. "The War Against Hypertension" script went through at least 20 revisions before it was locked down. Even then, the lead producer would have continued tweaking it except for the fact, as he later told me, that "television shows are never really finished, they're just abandoned."

After successive stints as a medical editor on one-time specials, I was asked to become the senior medical editor on LMT's flagship show: the long-running, weekly "Physicians' Journal Update." This assignment allowed me to cover breaking news and journal articles, interview experts, write scripts, and, as always, fact-check, fact-check, fact-check.