Dr. Ivan Oransky is the Executive Editor of the Reuters Health and a man of diversified interests, including all things healthcare news related, hiking, and Zinfandel. Find him on Twitter @IvanOransky and on his blogs Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch.
Let’s begin with a little bit about your background. Where did you go to school and what did you major in?
I went to undergrad at Harvard and majored in biology. Having nothing to do with anything – and Harvard didn’t officially have minors – but I minored in Slavic Literature. I was very interested in that. It did dovetail back into my medical interests in medical school because I published a paper in the Lancet on Mikhail Bulgakov, who is well-known for writing “The Master and Margarita” and was also a physician. He wrote a book that was a thinly veiled autobiography on his internship in 1917, just at the beginning of the second Russian Revolution. It’s a very neat window into medical practice at that time.
But perhaps most importantly, when I was in college, I worked on the daily newspaper The Harvard Crimson. I took it quite seriously. I covered the medical school for a year and then the faculty, which was one of the larger beats on the Crimson. Then I became Executive Editor and wrote a health and science page. I had the training and the experience leaving college that prepared me to do the job I do today. I don’t know of any Harvard Crimson alumni who went to journalism school. So I kind of had both tracks.
Why did you choose to go to medical school?
It’s almost a default in my family to go to medical school. Unless you couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and then you went to law school. To be fair, there was a level of expectations and it was the natural thing to do at the time. I was legitimately interested in biology and science. But even earlier on, in high school, my dream job was to be Larry Altman at the New York Times. I continued writing in medical school; I was the co-editor in Chief of Pulse, the medical student section of JAMA, which doesn’t exist anymore.
What catalyzed the turning point? Why did you choose to not practice clinical medicine?
When I was in my intern year, I got a lot of offers to write. I was clearly having more fun writing than being a psychiatry resident. So I decided to go into journalism full time.
I freelanced for about a year before I was offered a full time job in journalism at the Praxis Post. But since I had done the Crimson, I had all the contacts there for it. So I just kind of slipped into it.
How did you feel at that time? Were you scared to jump ship and take a path different from your classmates’? How did your parents feel about it?
My parents weren’t thrilled that I wanted to be a journalist. However they were also emotionally invested. My dad was a pediatrician and my grandfather was a GP. But once it became clear that I’d succeed in journalism, they were very happy with it. My dad was really excited when NYU gave me a voluntary position – Assistant of Clinical Medicine position. I periodically teach health communications seminars at the medical school. I do public health communications simulations with the fellows. It’s about how to work with journalists and how to express risk effectively. I also teach separately at the journalism school.
Can you talk a bit about your past journalism positions?
I was the founding editor in chief of the Praxis Post. We were winning awards and doing compelling journalism, but we had, quite frankly, a lousy business model that didn’t work. I was there for 2 years. The owner took a shine to me and asked me to become the Web editorial head at The Scientist, of which he had recently bought half. I eventually became promoted to be the Deputy Editor of all the print and online and was there for a total of 4 years. I left for the Scientific American to be their Managing Editor of Online for 15 months and then came to Reuters Health about 2 years ago.
Can you tell me a bit about what your job is now? What do you do on an average day?
I’m the Head of the Medical Unit at Reuters. I manage a team of six people plus a lot of freelancers. We have a couple of reporters and a couple of editors. On a day like today, I was choosing which studies to cover – looking at the embargo material and coordinating with other people at Reuters to see what makes sense. Two days a week, I am editing stories that we’ve commissioned before. I edit them and put them into our file, our wire, etc. Management is as much time as you let it be.
How does your MD help you in your current position?
One of the things I do, aside from running the team of journalists, is pick all the studies we cover. I’m reading more clinical stories than anyone I know. I pick 110 studies a week so in order to do that, I am using the training and the lingo, the understanding of how the body works, how physiology works. Medicine moves quickly. I didn’t learn how to read studies, how to be skeptical in medical school. But you don’t really learn this until you are sitting down and reading these studies.
Are there a lot of M.D. journalists out there?
There are a number – you’ll find a lot on television. A lot of local network affiliates have a doctor who is not full-time. The national networks each have their own M.D. correspondents, most of them have more than one: CNN – Dr. Sanjay Gupta, ABC – Dr. Richard Besser, CBS – Dr. Jonathan LaPook, Dr. Jennifer Ashton. There are a lot of journalists doing trade publications.
When I first got started, having a medical degree was not considered a good thing for some editors. They didn’t think I could write for mass media, that I would be using big words. I can see how that would be the case – doctors not being able to write and what not. However, having written for the Crimson, I had the experience.
Why are you passionate about medical journalism?
The soft answer is that I think a better informed public is a healthier public. Being able to make better-informed choices about your healthcare really makes a difference. I don’t really have a lot of data for that but it does seem obvious.
The thing I’m most passionate about in journalism is being the watchdog. One of the rules of journalism is: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The world needs more watchdogs. There are fewer and fewer paid journalists who are watchdogs so it might take us who are really volunteers. What I do on my blogs is really a volunteer effort. There’s plenty of good in the world but there’s also plenty of less than good intention. In my particular little corner is medicine and the publishing industry, and finding things that really aren’t right and shining the light on them. I’m passionate about uncovering things that people don’t want you to know.
Can you talk a bit about your blogs, Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch?
Embargo Watch has actually changed policy. At least five journals and scientific societies have come out and said you said our policy isn’t right and we’re going to change it. The readership isn’t huge but that makes it worth it. Retraction Watch is a much wider swath. We’re talking about more than 100,000 readers a month and growing towards more.
How did you go about growing blogs like Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch?
I learned a lot about nurturing a community of people who care about what you care about. And who are willing to be your ambassadors. They send me stories they think are relevant. I had a following from Twitter – I find stories on there, people know to contact me there. My twitter is really a 3 way, 4 way street. National outlets – including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times – have covered us and I was on the radio a couple times last month, including NPR.
Advice for medical students who are interested in medical journalism? How can they get involved? Any blogs or events they should be looking at or attending?
I think my advice is geared more towards college students than medical students. Run, don’t walk, to your college newspaper and learn it all there. Train yourself. Learn how to do journalism there. If you’re in medical school, to be honest, it’s going to be a lot harder to break into it. You need to be much more mercenary. I would suggest start blogging and tweeting. Get into the conversation – start following other medical writers and see what they do. If possible, sit down with some of them. To do this in a way that is fulfilling and to get compensation at all for your time, you need to get a certain kind of experience that speaks to a hiring person. Unfortunately JAMA doesn’t have a medical student section anymore.
As an MD wanting to become a journalist, you have to realize that you’re entering someone else’s world. Even if you’re a doctor, you can’t simply say I know what’s true – you need to investigate the issues and go out there and get someone to say that.
Do you ever regret leaving clinical medicine?
Every now and then I think about a case but I’m really happy with what I’m doing. At the end of the day, if I had stayed in medicine I’d probably be making more money. But I’m doing something I’m passionate about. You got to lose the entitlement stuff.
I always tell my students this – as a journalist, you have to be as interested and capable and willing to cover a fire or a theft in a lab as you are with a paper coming out of that lab. In journalism, you’re not there to make friends with your sources, you’re there for your readers.