Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Being a Doctor in Media

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PMY 515: Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Being a Doctor in Media

Session 515

I talk with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and his experiences balancing his work as a Neurosurgeon in media and how he has used his interests to widen his view of medicine.

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

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[01:44] Sanjay’s Interest in Medicine

When he was 13 years old, his grandfather had gotten really sick. He had a stroke and he was in the hospital. Nobody in his family was a doctor so he didn’t have enough exposure to medicine. But seeing physicians taking care of each other, he was just hooked at that point.

Sanjay went to the University of Michigan and combined applying for undergrad and medical school together, the Inteflex Program. Depending on when you started, you could take a year or two off of your time, and you’re automatically accepted into medical school from high school. He decided to join the program because his parents thought it would be a good idea to save time and money.

His college experience was different as a result. He got to take classes that he probably wouldn’t have taken. He thought the hardcore science curriculum was going to help him for medical school. He also ended up writing classes he otherwise wouldn’t have. There was an urge to slow down at times, but he did get to branch out in ways that he may be otherwise wouldn’t have.

[06:15] The Switch From Peds to Neurosurgery

When Sanjay was part way through Inteflex, he thought he was going to do pediatrics. Once he did rotations there, he just always felt that the pediatric doctors were some of just the best doctors in the hospital. For him, taking care of sick children was galvanizing, and he thought to be a pediatrician, you had to be really passionate about it.

Then when he did surgery rotations in his third and fourth years, he liked it a lot. He liked being in the operating room and the technical aspects of it. He started in general surgery, thinking he wanted to do transplant surgery. He thought immunology and transplant surgery just made perfect sense. Then he switched to neurosurgery in his second year.

And so, he made a couple of big changes in his career, being young at 22 years old. And so, he ended up switching from peds to general surgery to neurosurgery. Sanjay thinks Neurosurgery arguably has the most challenging operations from a technical standpoint and he also thought he was good at it.

'There's never going to be a shortage of things to try and understand about the brain.'Click To Tweet

[10:17] Finding that Work-Life Balance

Sanjay says the hardest thing for him during his journey to medicine is seeing a lot of his friends progressing in life faster than he was. Because he knew he had to postpone having a family during residency. But that being said, he now has a family with three teenage daughters.

In terms of work-life balance, Sanjay points out that to enact it requires you to be deliberate. You have to just be really honest about what you’re going to be able to deliver to each of those jobs. In his case, he is both fostering a career in medicine and being in the media.

Giving us a peek into his life, he does his operations every Monday. Then he sees patients in the office on Thursdays. Regardless of what you choose to do, you want to give 100% to each thing.

'Letting them in on your life, as opposed to throwing up a wall is probably how I would best summarize the family-life balance adage that I live by.'Click To Tweet

[14:42] His Involvement in the Media

As a late teenager, Sanjay already began writing magazines. Then he ultimately applied for a White House Fellowship, where he worked in the executive branch to a leadership fellowship focusing on health policy. When he left, he had met a lot of people in the media, who were interested in these topics and wanted him to talk about them.

Not really interested in doing media, he was on faculty at the University of Michigan before taking a job at Emory in Atlanta, which was also where the headquarters of CNN was at. Three weeks after he started a Sunday morning talk show, 9/11 happened. And so, he ended up covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and just about every conflict and natural disaster since then.

[17:01] Widening Your Aperture

This is a big field. How much do we consider pigeonholing versus just widening the aperture? What is possible within your field? The outcome is the same. But there are two different ways of looking at it.

Sanjay admits he still has the same passions that he had 25-30 years ago, which is still around health. It’s not only limited to being a doctor, but also the policy of health and how we think about the country’s health. He started writing about policy because he felt clinicians should be part of that discussion.

When he was writing about it in the late 90s, it was easy to get published, because nobody in the medical field is really writing about it. And so, those passions are the same, and he’s just widening the aperture.

[18:51] Challenges for the Future Doctors

Sanjay thinks some challenges have been amplified and they’ll continue to be amplified. Fundamentally, if you’re practicing in the United States, you’re joining a system that spends about $4 trillion a year to run. If you look at metrics that matter and metrics that history will judge us on, we don’t fare very well. So that’s a problem and it’s a worthy challenge.

There’s going to be an increased desire to address that. You can’t continue to spend that kind of money with these outcomes. 

Part of the solution is going to come from great scientists and advancing therapies. They’re making things less invasive and truer times in hospitals. But a lot of it is going to be in terms of how we think about what constitutes good health.

It’s a society that is spinning so much because of these high rates of obesity and diabetes. And so, this is going to be the biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity, because we can make some significant inroads into addressing that challenge.

'There are lots of opportunities to make meaningful changes in healthcare because first of all, it is ripe for change… If you're curious about making a change, you've picked the right field.'Click To Tweet

People who are going into medicine make a change every day. You are going to become the most important person to countless people you’ve never even met. You’ll be the most important person in their lives as a doctor, as a health care person, and it’s amazing.

[23:26] Humility in Medicine

While in the big scientific organizations such as CDC or whatever, the trust may have gone down, people’s personal physicians are still among the most trusted in society. And so, all is not lost.

But one of the things that jumped out at him during the pandemic is that scientists and medical people have increasingly been seen as arrogant. And so, he thinks the idea that scientific people are seen as arrogant is probably part of the issue here in terms of the mistrust.

Patients who are in the hospitals are in a very unusual situation and you’re taking care of them in a vulnerable time of their lives. And so, most physicians have to manifest humility. 

'There's a humility to the scientific process. But I think sometimes the way people interact with each other lacks that.'Click To Tweet

We think of medicine in the same manner that we think of math where there’s an absolute. But medicine is not that way. It’s a probabilistic sort of field. And being able to embody that in your language and communication is important.

We’re not certain of many things in life. And so, you have to make sure that you don’t come off as arrogant or too didactic.

Ultimately, the legacy Sanjay wants to leave as his legacy is the ability to push boundaries, which is what he’s doing in the field.

[28:30] His Thoughts on Psychedelics

Sanjay recently talked about psychedelics on his podcast, Chasing Life with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and he explains he was simply trying to tell the stories of the people who did and present them through explanatory journalism.

And as a neurosurgeon, this is his chance to explore these things that he has always been interested in – to be that bridge between what the medical world knows and investigating and learning.

[30:48] Final Words of Wisdom

Many of the specific jobs or specific ways that you’ll spend your time are maybe things that haven’t even been thought of yet. And so, you have to widen your aperture, in terms of how you think about medicine and your career.

'Taking care of humans, being given that awesome responsibility. There's nothing like it in the world.'Click To Tweet

Being in the healthcare profession is the most rewarding. There’s no question about it. You cannot duplicate that anywhere else he can think of in life. It’s not to minimize other careers by any means. But if this is what’s really driving you, it’s still going to be true 30 years later, as it did for him.


Meded Media

Chasing Life podcast

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Inteflex Program