6 easy tips: a beginners guide to staying news-savvy

A big part of my job is monitoring studies that are going to come out in major medical journals and helping decide which are newsworthy. This means that I get to read these studies while they are still under “embargo” and not available to the general public. Journals do this so that news outlets can plan their coverage. For example, last week the World Health Organization launched a massive report on Antimicrobial Resistance (which includes antibiotic resistance). They sent it around to major media organizations so that when the report was actually released to the public- we had already interviewed experts and our piece was ready to go.

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Staying current and connected even while on location in Lebanon

What I love is opening up the paper or reading my daily “medical news roundups” and already knowing all the headlines. It’s an incredibly nerdy thrill but but I like keeping abreast of topics that are relevant to my career. I actually think it will make me a much better physician if I am up to date on the current research and controversies. So I intend to stay on top of the news coverage.

This can be very intimidating. The good news is that you don’t need to devote hours to stay current on current events. Here are some tips for people hoping to stay up to date:

  1. Get a subscription to a real old fashioned paper. If it’s sitting in front of you, you’re more likely to browse and read stories that might not have attracted your attention enough to click.
  2. Have a routine and use bookmarks to help: I have a bookmarks folder in my browser with 5 news sites that I check every morning when turn on my phone or sit down at my desk. I click through and
  3. Get email digests: for general news I subscribed to OZY’s Presidential Daily Brief. For medical news I subscribe to a few sites including email alerts from Medpage. These places curate emails and summarize the news of the day. If I miss something with my usual browsing, 9 time out of 10 it will show up in an email digest. I mostly delete them after skimming the headlines unless I find something that interests me.
  4. Use social media: Twitter is a great way to stay up-to-date. I follow the New York Times (@nytimes), the Associated Press (@AP), NBC News (@NBCNews) and many other outlets. They all post quick tweets with their breaking stories. I also follow other reporters or newsmakers who often post articles that I never would have otherwise read. I also appectiate my friends on Facebook who post interesting stories. In fact, I am currently developing a story for NBC News based on an article my friend posted.
  5. Consider downloading an app:  if I find an article I like on Twitter, Facebook, online etc- I often don’t have time to read it in real time. So I download it to my “read later” app which stores the story on my phone or computer so that I can read it later even if I’m not connected to the internet. This is especially great for subway/train commuters. Here is an article comparing a few of the most popular apps.
  6. Don’t get too ambitious: unless it’s your job it’s very difficult to be 100% on top of all news. If this is your goal, you will get overwhelmed and risk abandoning your efforts all together. Start by skimming headlines of one news site each day and build up as you see fit.

Happy reading everyone.

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Study Shows that Smart Phones Can Help Skin Docs Consult on Patients in the Hospital

One of the things I’m learning is how to best describe scientific research in simple terms. Below is piece I wrote about a new study from some of my Penn Derm mentors that was just published in JAMA Dermatology:

Doctors consulting using a smartphone “app” might be just as good as an in person visit from a doctor, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania. Many patients in the hospital end up with skin problems but most hospitals don’t have dermatologists to evaluate them.  A possible solution may lie in a an “app” that lets doctors look at pictures of the skin problems and tell hospital staff whether or not the patient merits an in person visit.

 The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Dermatology, took 50 patients from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who needed to be seen by a dermatologist. Researchers took a picture of the skin problem using a smartphone and sent it virtually to dermatologists (“teledermatologists”) who provided an opinion. Another dermatologist saw each of the patients in person and recorded his decision: did the patient really need to be seen that day, the next day, sometime during their hospital stay or could it wait for an outpatient visit? He also wrote down whether the patient needed to have a biopsy (skin sample).

When the in person dermatologists decided a patient be seen the same day, the teledermatologists agreed in 90 percent of cases. And they agreed in 95 percent of cases where the in-person dermatologist had recommended a biopsy. The doctors completely agreed on a diagnosis 82 percent of the time, and partially agreed in 88 percent of cases, which is the standard variation expected between doctors.

This is encouraging news in a time when many areas of the United States have very little access to dermatologists. “In addition to addressing physician shortages from a clinical standpoint, teledermatology programs are very important for vulnerable citizens in the United States and abroad,” said Dr. William James, author in the study and past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. “It is wonderful that the impact of these teledermatology consultations continues to expand.”

Journalism roundup

IMG_8285It’s been strange to be out of the clinical world for this long. Sometimes I find myself striving to remember the name of a disease or drug that would have been second nature to me last year. On the other hand, it’s been great to look at medicine from the outside in – it’s given me a perspective that is hard to achieve when you are mired in the thick of it.

Here are some pieces that I’ve recently published. Any thoughts, suggestions and comments are welcome!

  1. Flu shot story + podcast/slideshow
  2. An opinion column on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and medical students
  3. Cost containment in dermatology. I got to interview the president of the American Academy of Dermatology! 
  4. Local forum on the Affordable Care Act
  5. Superheros at the children’s hospital!

In case you missed them: there are also a few pieces that I published while in IndiaIMG_4202

  1. Living with leprosy
  2. Unhealthy eating in college campuses
  3. Leprosy in the modern world

My semi charmed life + a plea

It feels a bit inappropriate that I’ve been IMG_8627so derelict in my blogging given that I’ve been at journalism school. But the reason for my silence is not that I’ve gotten lazy, lost interest, or met a boy and eloped in the Caribbean. Rather, I’ve just been focusing on…well, journalism.

IMG_8745For those who don’t know. The second part of my fellowship entails spending Sep-Dec at Stanford’s journalism school. I attend classes with the journalism grad students and write articles for the Peninsula Press- a news website for jschool that has major media partners including KQED (Northern California’s NPR station) and SF Chronicle.

Let me just say that I have never been happier. Why?

School. It’s fun, engaging , challenging and I have unparalleled support from my professors- whom I regularly communicate with on a daily basis. I’m learning a lot about journalism and multimedia and I know that these skills will serve me quite well in my career. During the course of this semester I have learned how to record/edit my own audio and pictures/video. Most of all I have gotten to speak with and interview such interesting people: the head of the American Academy of Dermatology, a woman who will have health insurance for the first time in five years, a gay Assemblyman who is married to a doctor, a medical student seeing patients for the first time, a State Senator, the Chief Medical Officer of the AAMC. And tonight? Off to moderate a two hour panel about the Affordable Care Act!

Friends. It was almost weird how quickly I become comfortable with my colleagues. They are smart, funny, crazy accomplished (many are already established journalists- some at publications like the Wall Street Journal) and they welcomed me with open arms despite the fact that I will be leaving all too soon (a fact we like to collectively ignore).

Quality of life. So living in Palo Alto is IMG_8708like living in Disney World. It’s perfect. Sometimes too perfect but for 4 months it’s…well…perfect. I actually live on a couch in a professor’s house which is interesting because I have no door but she is lovely, it’s on campus and I get to walk an adorable dog every day.  I have been getting 8 hours of sleep, exercising, reading, staying in touch with friends from home, spending time with new friends here.

In med school it’s easy to forget about time for yourself. And so this hiatus has reminded me that personal care is not selfish- it helps me to be happier and thus more productive and a better citizen of the world. Hope I can import this back with me going forward.

I hope this wasn’t too obnoxiously smug. And clearly I’ve drank a bit of the uber perfect Palo Alto KoolAid. And trust me, things aren’t perfect. But I’m in a good place.

Related-ish plea: Does anyone know of any leads of an apartment/couch/sublet/cardboard box I can call my own in NYC from Jan through May? Needs to be convenient to 30 Rock (Rockefeller Center) for my next gig at NBC News. It’s getting down to the wire for me. Many thanks in advance.

Tropical Medicine and Twitter

ImageI was invited to travel to DC to attend the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygeine’s annual conference in Washington DC. I was delighted because my clinical interest is skin disease and global health/tropical medicine. So I left sunny Palo Alto and flew across the country to re-immerse myself in some good old fashioned medical learnin’.

The conference so far has been incredibly exciting. I gleefully texted friends that I was psyched to see several sessions solely dedicated to helminths (parasitic worms). Only I would be that big of a nerd but, hey, as Popeye would say “I yam what I yam.”

To be honest, this conference is very technical in many ways: lots of really cool basic science and research about malaria, dengue fever and other global health issues. I understand bits and pieces from the clinical side but a lot of the science goes straight over my head. It was admittedly fun listening to clinical content- I didn’t realize that I would long for the days of hearing “thrombocytopenia” casually dropped in a conversation.

What has been new and excited for me is approaching this from the angle of a reporter. I walked into the press room with a bit of trepidation. But, to my shock, I am a reporter now and people do take me seriously- partially because of the title of my fellowship. I loved reading the press releases and seeing what the conference organizers felt would be newsworthy: everything from a study comparing dengue fever in two parts of the country to new vaccines for malaria.

The other fun thing has been engaging in social media. I am fairly new to twitter but am really starting to appreciate how it keeps me connected to people in journalism and health care who curate and amass content that keeps me interested and on top of the news.

During MedicineX (a medicine and technology conference I reported from in September) it seemed like everyone was on twitter. (Here’s a clip from a video interview I did about this subject:

Here the “twitterverse” has been markedly more limited. Less than 10 people seem to be regularly tweeting about the conference. For those who don’t know- it’s possible to have a conversation on twitter by including a hashtag (denoted by the # sign) in your tweet. Then, when you click on the hashtag- you see everyone who is talking about that subject. In this case the hashtag was #TropMed2013 so a sample tweet might be “Now we can protect kids from Japanese Encephalitis. This year a JE vaccine safe for children was rolled out #TropMed2013”

I ended up meeting a bunch of like minded people during these conversations and we got to meet in person and talk about global health and science and reporting.

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The other highlight was a panel entitled “Global Health and the Media: From Shoe-Leather Reporting to Television to Twitter” that was moderated by the amazing Dr. Michele Barry– one of the heads of my fellowship and an amazing mentor. On the panel were Donald McNeil (NYT global health reporter), Michaeleen Doucleff (NPR global health producer/reporter), Emily Judum (from Global Post) and Penny Duckham (from Kaiser Family Foundation).

The whole panel was fantastic. I won’t rehash everything but there were a few key highlights:  McNeil started off talking about his experience reporting on polio in Pakistan and how he did a story regarding how vaccinators were being killed. His experience reflected deep, old fashioned  investigative reporting and it was riveting. Ducleff spoke mostly about social media and she was incredibly optimistic (not something you get a lot of in the journalism world): “it’s easier than ever for scientists to be published” she told the crowd. Clearly there are no excuses why scientists (including doctors) shouldn’t be communicating their work to the public.

The night ended with a real treat for me: dinner with the whole panel. I got to hear about McNeil’s experience with the CIA, the work that the Kaiser Foundation is doing with the ACA, what it’s like to work at NPR. We talked about pay structure for journalism and what journalists owe their sources in terms of anonymity. I was honored and happy to be included in the conversation.

Not only that- but tomorrow there is a panel on tropical dermatology. Pretty sure they designed this conference just for me. In the meantime, text me if you want live updates on parasitic worms!

Learning to tell their stories: visit to a leprosy colony

ImageIn addition to my work at the WHO I have been trying to hone my journalistic skills. At this point, that means doing what I do best: talk with people. Rickshaw drivers, my colleagues, fellow train passengers, chai wallahs, doctors…anyone and everyone. I spent an entire 2 hour car ride this weekend discussing bribes and corruption in the healthcare system with our driver. Today I stopped someone for directions…and spent 15 minutes talking about healthy eating choices at universities. It’s great. Instead of just being a really friendly chatterbox I can now blame my verboseness on “journalism.”

In service of this, I headed out on assignment last week. I’m going to be writing a few stories for an Indian newspaper called The Hindu. My first article? Leprosy of course. I almost laughed when they told me- I feel like I’m finding a niche. In search of a new angle I met up with Meeta, a photographer for the paper who served as my translator, and the two of us went to a nearby leprosy colony. (note: because leprosy is fully curable with antibiotics, people who live in these colonies are usually persons who had the disease in the past- and may have suffered consequent deformities- and their families.)

We walked from home to home and finally found someone who spoke Hindi (as opposed to a more regional dialect). I don’t want to spoil my story but we found an incredibly kind, interesting, articulate gentleman. He welcomed us into his home and spoke with me for more than an hour. I was captivated. During the interview a rat crawled over his wife, it was hot, and I was tired from a full day at work beforehand. But I could have stayed there all day. I was struck by his story and his quiet insistence that leprosy-affected persons deserved the dignity of work, no matter how humble the job.

IMG_4275While Meeta set up her photos I was led around the colony by an impromptu volunteer tour guide- an older gentleman who spoke no English but insisted on taking me to every dwelling and had me take pictures of everyone, young and old. When he wanted to get my attention he would call my “name”…”eeeleee” and (Hayley is hard to pronounce in Hindi) and off we would go. When the “tour” was over he brought me to his home/small shop, insisted on giving me tea and a coke and refused any and all forms of payment. Remember: I was a complete stranger, coming into their community, asking them deeply personal questions and offering nothing in return. I couldn’t even communicate without my translator, relying instead on the universal currency of pointing, gestures and smiles.

By now I should be used to this amazing generosity. During the International Leprosy Summit in Thailand I met Mr. V Narsappa, the chairman of a national advocacy group for leprosy affected persons.  He was diagnosed with leprosy at age 9 and was kicked out of his house at that time. He too spent hours talking with me about his experiences. At the end he asked only one thing of me: “write something that will help people affected by leprosy.” His injunction is one that I take seriously and it reminds me that be it medicine, journalism or public health…with great privilege comes great responsibility.

The generosity of my impromptu tour guide, the gentleman I interviewed, the leprosy patients I met at the hospital last month is so intense and humbling. They make me want to be a better person- more generous, more optimistic, more hospitable. In the meantime, however, I will just try to take advantage of this incredible fellowship so I can learn to tell their stories.