Now that I have stacked up a good number of years in medical practice, I am one of those doctors who gets asked from time to time to talk about my career with medical students and junior physicians, answering questions about how I chose my specialty, how I like life in academia, and how I balance being a doctor, a spouse, and a mother.
Part of my answer always includes my late start in the field. I was nearly 30 when I decided to give up on a life in journalism and go back to school and become a doctor. For a decade before that, I was a newswoman, a radio producer, and then a TV producer and editor, and I worked in Jerusalem, New York, and London. I covered wars, natural disasters, politics, terror attacks, international affairs, and some fluff stories as well. Yes, I must confess: skateboarding squirrels, surfing dogs, and high-heel races are some of the memorable news stories I shared with the world.
And when I share this, the most common comment I get is some variation of, “Wow, journalism to medicine sounds like 180 degrees!”
I thought so too at the time I started making the switch. But eventually I found it not to be a radical change at all. To the contrary, my decade in news prepared me well—better than any of the required organic chemistry or physics courses—for a life as a medical doctor.
It’s all about storytelling.
One of the things that many students feel most nervous (and excited) about in the first 1 to 2 years of medical school is interviewing patients. This is what we call in medicine taking a history: a process that is at least as important as doing a physical examination. Indeed, I would argue that its impact is often greater than diagnostic testing or lab results in reaching a diagnosis and creating management plans.
For me, history taking felt like being back out on a story, behind the camera, getting the facts and making them make sense. Doing this well, in either context, is an art in itself: knowing when to press, when to let go, asking open ended questions, letting silences linger, paying attention to what’s not being said. These are crucial skills that we, as medical educators, try to teach medical students from year one to the end of their training and beyond. And they were skills I acquired in journalism.
Another important part of the medical encounter is writing—specifically the history and physical (H&P) or the progress note. These, essentially, are narrative descriptions of the visit with the patient and the plan of action.
Here again, years in journalism have taught me how to distill the information to what’s really important and what the priorities are. The H&P and progress note are, fundamentally, a summary of the patient’s story: what happened, when, how, where, and why? These famous five Ws from every journalism 101 class all apply in medicine as well.
Finally, all medical students and residents need to report, orally, to their superiors, usually an attending physician. Providing succinct patient summaries—sometimes this would mean condensing a 30-minute patient interview into a 1 to 2-minute brief report—was also a skill honed through years of editing 30 minutes of video and interviews into a tight minute-and-a-half piece.
Teamwork is key.
When out on a story, at least back in the day—before you could do everything with a smartphone—meant working with a camera crew, a videographer and a sound person, as well as several colleagues back in the office, from technical video editors, to content editors, and news editors. Each story’s creation and birth was the collective effort of multiple people, each an expert in his or her domain. A producer, often, was the captain of the team, planning, booking, supervising, and eventually, pulling it all together. The work of a doctor, I learned as I started my third-year rotations, was not that different. Quality patient care cannot rely on a doctor alone. The nurses, case managers, administrators, students, residents, and various specialists all must work together to provide high quality care. The launch of the Patient-Centered Medical Home (PCMH) idea really reminded me of my work as a producer.
Working under pressure.
Performing under pressure and in fast-changing circumstances is the very definition of clinical practice. It’s the same in journalism. In fact, in journalism, if it’s not changing, then it’s not news anymore. Combine the need for speed with strict deadlines and often chaotic situations, like being under direct fire in war zones, and that’s some real pressure. Learning to stay cool, and developing the ability to juggle multiple demands and issues (including the needs of stressed colleagues), are skills often gained during medical training. For me, I already had a decade of this under my belt.
Lack of sleep.
I don’t want to glorify this aspect of medicine or journalism, but both professions give plenty of opportunities to forgo sleep in the service of breaking news, deadlines, or patient care. Not that anyone ever gets used to pulling all-nighters, but the prospect of working a full day followed by an overnight, and then some, can be far less intimidating when you’ve had a decade of doing just that. You know you can survive, function well, and even thrive with just the right amount of adrenalin pumping through your system.
While the rates of divorce of doctors are said to be high, I don’t believe anyone has looked at doctors married to journalists. On our first date, my future husband—a busy journalist himself—said to me “only a doctor, or another journalist, can understand, and be accepting, of my schedule.” I concur. Beyond understanding the long hours, unpredictable schedule, sleepless nights, there is also the understanding that in both professions you are privy to the most intimate, often horrific, unforgettable, and meaningful moments in people’s lives. A nod of understanding is often enough when you simply want to be quiet and not discuss your day at work.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the biggest gift my life as a journalist has given me is exposure. I learned, and saw with my own eyes, that there’s a whole wide world out there, and that often, what’s going on out there—politics, wars, poverty, where people live, what they do for work—has a much bigger effect on our patients’ lives than any one medical intervention, medication, doctor, clinic or hospital.
Though medical schools these days are increasing their emphasis on these issues (sometimes called the social determinants of health), nothing will ever equal seeing it up close and personal.
Journalism was my way of doing that. Of course, there are others. But the one way not to get that sort of seasoning is by following the usual trajectory of high school, college, medical school, and residency. My advice: take a detour. Take a gap year. Get a job for a few years. Then hit medical school. You’ll be a better doctor for it.