Dr. Sanjay Gupta has done more in his 46 years than many people accomplish in a lifetime. First, he became a neurosurgeon, a career that requires almost two decades of higher education and training. Then, he broadened his scope to include journalism, reporting from war zones for CBS and CNN, where he is currently chief medical correspondent, while performing the occasional emergency surgery on soldiers and civilians.
As a White House Fellow, he stepped into the political realm and was considered for the post of Surgeon General in 2009 before withdrawing his name. And he somehow also managed to find time to write two nonfiction books and a novel.
Gupta will be featured at the St. Louis Speakers Series presented by Maryville University at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 3, at Powell Hall. Ladue News spoke with Gupta in advance of his upcoming visit.
St. Louis is looking forward to welcoming you! Can you give us a sneak peek of your topic for the evening?
I’m going to be talking about the sort of awkward dance between medicine and media. I sort of live in these two worlds. It’s a bit novel for someone who was a science kid and went on to do neurosurgery and then incorporated journalism into my life. I think there’s a relevance in that for a lot of people – not specifically what I did, but the idea of incorporating different things into your life. Why? How?
You get to a certain age in life, and you think, “OK, that ship has sailed. I’m going to dispense with that dream.” Whatever it may be. And what I’ve found is that’s not necessarily the case.
You know, I’ve been doing this job now for 14 years, and there are a lot of stories from the field that I think will be interesting to share. Stuff that may not have made it to the screen but had a profound influence on me, and maybe the audience will find it influential to them as well.
What do people, as an audience, need to know about interpreting and consuming health media today?
It’s an interesting question. First of all, people consume health news in all sorts of different ways. There was a lot of apprehension about this if you go back about 15 to 20 years, when people were really starting to get online, trying to figure out what ails them and then essentially going down rabbit holes and becoming anxious and always gravitating toward the worst-case scenario. But that’s here. That’s the world in which we live.
I think there are people who have tried to provide the best content possible online, in newspapers, on the radio – in all these different outlets. As a consumer, you want to find sources that you really trust and that are the honest brokers in this situation, but also to not in any way ignore the medical establishment by developing relationships with your doctors or nurses or your health care team overall.
Medicine oftentimes is not taken seriously in the sense that people will move to a neighborhood, and they’ll know everything about their kids’ schools and everything about their grocery stores, but they may not know that much about the hospitals or the doctors or the people who may care for them. I think people just need to make that a priority like they do anything else.
Searching for things online, looking in different places for this knowledge, that’s here. That’s going to continue to happen and grow. But I think being proactive in all sorts of different ways with regard to the most important thing in your life – your health and your family’s – needs to happen as well.
What do you think are some of the most pressing health topics and issues you see today that you think should warrant more media coverage to help raise awareness?
I’ll preface it by saying that I travel all over the world as a medical reporter, covering medical stories in countries that are still developing and countries in the aftermath of tragedy or natural disaster or war, and there are a lot of things that confront them on a daily basis in these places that are very different from here in the United States.
We have a sophisticated health system in so many ways, and I think one of the great concerns for a long time has been, and still continues to be, that some of our wonderful achievements in health care have not been made available to people who could use them most. I think we’ll look back 100 years from now, and we’ll say, “How did that make sense? How did it make sense that you had all these wonderful things in medicine – you developed new medicines and techniques and all that – and you didn’t give it to the people who could have benefited? What were you thinking?” I think that’s one of the challenges.
I also think the idea of preventable illnesses not being fully addressed is a real concern. We like the home runs and touchdowns when it comes to medicine and medical breakthroughs, but unless we get the low-hanging fruit stuff right first, I think that’s challenging. Vaccinating people. Dealing with the problems around obesity and diabetes. These are significant problems. We don’t realize the price that our country will pay for not taking care of what are largely preventable problems over the next 20, 30, 40 years. It’s going to be something that we have to absolutely deal with.
You were an advisor to Hillary Clinton in the late-’90s and were considered for the post of Surgeon General but withdrew your name. So if Hillary becomes the next president, would you consider the post if you were asked again?
I don’t know. I try not to live in the world of hypotheticals too much, but I’m a big fan of public service. I worked at the White House, as you mentioned, and I think public service is something I can absolutely see myself doing again.
Part of the reason for not taking the job the last time was just life stuff. My wife was pregnant with our third child, and I was told at some point in the process that I couldn’t practice surgery anymore as Surgeon General. That’s ironic in a way, and I was just in my mid-30s and wasn’t wanting to give up my surgical career at that stage of life. I felt like I was just getting my surgical career going. So these were all just sort of life things.
To answer your question, regardless whether it’s Hillary or somebody else, I can see myself getting back into public service at some point. I really enjoyed that part of my life.
Whether you or someone else is Surgeon General, what health care-related issues do you think coming up in the next few years would be beneficial for the government to focus on? You already mentioned preventive health issues. Are those at the top of your list?
Those are absolutely at the top of my list. The thing about preventable problems is that they’re not nearly as sexy or as engaging to talk about as the rarer issues or things that are more exotic. So I think understanding that part of it is something I’ve been focused on for 14 years now as a journalist, and I think it’s really important.
When you talk about preventable issues, you’re trying to do one of the most challenging things in public health. And that is that you’re trying to prove a negative. You’re trying to basically say, “If you eat right, if you exercise, if you take care of yourself, then nothing will happen to you.” And that’s not an overly inspiring argument to make. But if I change that and say, “This isn’t about treating disease, and this isn’t even about preventing disease. This is about optimizing yourself. This is about realizing that you can be better tomorrow than you are today. Better, faster, stronger, happier, healthier, more productive, in better relationships.” That tends to be a much more inspirational and aspirational tune.
If I were in public service, and this is something I try to do as a journalist as well, I’d focus on the optimization of people as opposed to just the prevention of disease. “Prevention of disease” sounds like you’re just swatting at flies. “Optimization” sounds like you’re about to make a big change in your life for the better. That’s what I think really will resonate with people. If you tell them they’re not going to get a disease, certainly that has great value, but if you tell them, “You’re going to feel better,” that is powerful.
Finally, a more personal question: You have a lot going on. How do you balance your medical career, media work and family time?
First, I feel I’m lucky to do it. We all have a certain amount of time on earth in our lives, and I like to be busy. I want to use as much of my time as possible. My parents taught me that, and I teach that to my kids. Don’t waste time. Feel lucky that you have it, and use it wisely.
I schedule myself every day, and I have since I was a kid. I’ve found that if you give yourself inordinate amounts of time to do something, you will take inordinate amounts of time to do something. But if you say you have an hour and a half to write a paper or do XYZ, and you don’t give yourself unlimited time, you start to get a lot more done on any particular day.
I don’t think of medicine and media, by the way, as different silos. I see them along the same spectrum. I’ve learned a lot as a journalist, and it’s helped my medical career and vice versa.
With regard to family, I have three little girls, 10, 8 and 6, and I’m not a parenting expert by any means. I’ve had kids later in life, and I started incorporating them into my professional life as opposed to drawing a wall between personal and professional life. That’s been really helpful. If I go off to Haiti to cover an earthquake, all of a sudden I’m gone for a while, and I want to tell them about that. I want them to understand what I was doing. I want them to know what motivates me, and it may be something that resonates with them. But I find those are some of the best conversations and the best time I spend with my kids is when I include them in things. It allows the time to be really well spent.