CNN and its worldwide audience can partially thank Bill and Hillary Clinton for the cable news giant’s medical superstar – Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Gupta was in Little Rock Thursday (June 27) for a guest lecture as part of the Clinton Presidential Center’s Frank and Kula Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture Series.
He’s an Emmy award winning medical correspondent, who anchors a weekend medical affairs show, “Sanjay Gupta, M.D.,” and provides reports to CNN and “60 Minutes.”
Gupta, 43, still practices neurosurgery in Atlanta. He’s in the operating room every Monday and every other Friday and sees patients on Thursdays. He has travelled the world including war zones and earthquake-stricken nations to report on public health and medical crises. When he was providing coverage from near the front lines in the Iraq War in 2003, he performed live-saving brain surgery on injured soldiers in a desert operating room.
MEET THE CLINTONS
In 1997-98, Gupta earned a White House fellowship, which allowed him to work on health care policy in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated reform efforts of the President’s first term. He worked in the Office of the First Lady and wrote speeches on health care, fielding questions from both President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton in advance.
He said the training and preparation from those two years taught him that the word “care” in “health care” was just as important as the word “health.”
“We knew that we had the data right. We knew that we got the substance right on and accurate. Then it was a question of making people care about it,” Gupta said in an interview in the library at the Clinton School of Public Service.
“Public health is comprised of those two qualities. It’s got to be the right message and people have to hear that right message. I learned a lot of that from working at the White House and working on those speeches.”
THE WHITE HOUSE-CNN CONNECTION
During his White House fellowship, Gupta met a former Lyndon B. Johnson White House official named Tom Johnson.
Johnson was an occasional visitor at the Clinton White House in part due to his role as Chief Operating Officer at CNN, the cable news network. The two were introduced and struck up a friendship.
“Tom was interested in building a medical unit at CNN. There were other units that had medical units, but CNN didn’t really have one. He wanted to know if I would be involved with that at that time,” Gupta recalls.
The young doctor wasn’t really interested. The concept sounded too “nebulous” and he let the opportunity drift.
A half-decade later, Gupta had moved to Atlanta to follow one of his mentors in neurosurgery. He and Johnson crossed paths and the two rekindled their talks.
“I literally ran into Johnson at the airport. I hadn’t seen him in 5 or 6 years,” Gupta said. “We started talking again. He said to come visit CNN and I did. I was going to do some commentary on health care policy for the first year, in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2001 August. That’s when I started and three weeks after I started, the attacks on 9-11 happened.”
Gupta quickly built a reputation talking about many of the health hazards that presented themselves in the 9-11 aftermath. The rest, as they say, is history.
HISTORY & THE FUTURE
Gupta’s journey to Little Rock for his Thursday speech is centered in health care messaging.
With the Affordable Care Act in the early implementation stages, Gupta said his speech is aimed at “imagining the future and honoring the past.”
He says there are some solid, rational explanations for many designs in the expansive federal health care law and he is eager to explain that the comprehensiveness of the measure is an opportunity for the whole health care system to work towards better outcomes.
As a doctor, he does not share the opinion that many of his colleagues have voiced in raising concerns about the new law.
“For the medical community, the predominant groups don’t fully understand it,” Gupta says. “There’s a lot to understand here. There’s over 2,000 pages of various things. The second group – and I think this is a very fair depiction – their lives really aren’t going to change that much. The trepidation, I think, is probably not that well-founded. When you ask what they’re specifically worried about, the answers start to get very vague.”
He admits that the influx of new patients in the nation’s health care system will compound a problem that’s been brewing for years: a doctor shortage. By some estimates, Gupta says, there is a shortage of 15,000-20,000 primary care physicians.
“I think that’s going to get exacerbated as you get more people entering the system. But for the vast majority of a lot of physicians who are practicing now, I don’t think a lot’s really going to change for them. They’ll have more patients, but they’ll have more patients with health insurance,” he said.
Gupta says demographics are partly to blame for the physician shortage as baby boomers retire, but the health care system of the past few decades has done little to incentivize this doctor subset. “There hasn’t been as much emphasis on wellness,” he contends. “It has been much more focused on disease management.”
Bring up disease awareness and prevention and Gupta is clearly in his element. He sees his role as an educator to make the public aware of preventable and manageable problems.
He points out that diabetes, obesity, infectious diseases, and even the common flu are major health risks in the U.S.
“By the year 2020, half the country is going to be diabetic or pre-diabetic. If they’re hearing the message, we’re not doing enough about it. So it’s got to be crafted with a purpose that the Clintons talked about in the late ’90’s,” he says.
“We’ll always make sure we’re telling people the news with health and medical stuff, but to the extent that we can be part of the solution with obesity, diabetes, infectious diseases, that’s really important.”
MEDIA APPETITE FOR MEDICAL NEWS
Do we need more Sanjay Gupta’s in the media? The question is asked in the context of can there be too many talking heads on medical subjects that in turn lead to confusing or conflicting information.
“There’s a huge appetite for health and medical wellness and content. Clearly, people want it. People want knowledge in this area of how to take care of themselves and to care for their families,” he contends.
For Gupta, he sees varying scales of how to reach audiences on issues of personal and public health. He speaks to a large national and international audience, but with the technology revolution underway and its ability to localize and personalize content, Gupta sees a paradigm shift in the making.
“The way that I give it [information], I don’t know how long it will last. I sort of have to predict what a wide swath of the country will be interested in at a given time. It’s hard,” he says.
“I think as you can start to drill down on particular groups of people – either surrounding conditions like diabetes or surrounding demographics like moms who are trying to make health care decisions for their kids – I think that’s going to be far more important the next several years.. . That personalization isn’t something I can do on my platform.”
At the heart of the debate for Gupta is the difference between information and knowledge.
“You have to trust it in order to take act on it. As there is a closer connection between the people who are providing that knowledge, which is contextualized information, and the people who are gathering it and craving it, I think you can become more prescriptive and more helpful,” he says.
TEACHING SOMETHING NEW
Gupta can invest hours into preparing for a standard 2-3 minute segment on CNN. Although he is a practicing physician who knows his stuff, he talks to sources and colleagues and reads research material all in an effort “to teach something new” to viewers.
He was considered by President Obama for U.S. Surgeon General before withdrawing from consideration.
This father of three young girls says while he’s been broadening his media base, he definitely expects to slow down in the near future.
“I want to spend more time doing fewer things,” he admits. “But this is my love. My passion is medicine and health.”
If slowing down means cutting back on commitments, he’ll have to practice a little harder.
In March of this year, he partnered with the web site EverydayHealth.com to provide articles and videos with a consumer focus. Through the site, he’s also launched The Gupta Guide, which he described as “a daily digest” of what’s happening in the world of medicine and science all over the world.
“I think digital is the way to go. I think that’s how you’re going to do that. That’s how my friends and family get their content. They’re not watching me on TV,” he laughs.
But the rest of us are, Dr. Gupta, the rest of us are. And we’re learning a thing or two in the process.
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