Communicating Science to the Public
James Hamblin, MD, is a writer and senior editor at The Atlantic magazine. He hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk, for which he was a finalist in the Webby awards for Best Web Personality, and will soon release a book under the same title. He is a past Yale University Poynter Fellow in Journalism, and he has lectured at Harvard Medical School, Wharton Business School, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and SXSW, among others.
His writing and videos have been featured in/on The New York Times, Politico magazine, Bon Appétit, Comedy Central, NPR, BBC, MSNBC, New York, and The Awl, among others. Time named him among the 140 people to follow on Twitter, Greatist named him among the most influential people in health media, and BuzzFeed called him “the most delightful MD ever.”
After completing his medical education at Indiana University, he did three years of residency before joining The Atlantic to develop a health section and, at least for now, Dr. Hamblin works entirely in media.
I spoke with Dr. Hamblin about medical school, his career, improv, how medicine is changing and how doctors should change with it.
What initially drew you to clinical medicine and what eventually took you away from it?
I was in radiology residency, and you really don’t have patient relationships, which I thought I’d be fine without but wasn’t. I think a lot about whether another specialty would have been better for me—or still might be. It’s the same complaint that many doctors have who are feeling burnt out in a lot of specialties: you don’t really get the time to spend with people or relate to them. At the end of the day that’s what’s rewarding.
Do you regret going to medical school?
No! I loved it. The only thing that really annoys me about medical school is how much med students complain about med school. There’s sort of an expectation that you’re supposed to act all beleaguered all the time. But for the most part you sit there and learn and everywhere around you people are trying to make you into a better person. I didn’t find one specialty that really spoke to me, but apart from that I have no regrets. I wish everybody could go through it.
Your persona on “If Our Bodies Could Talk” is silly, awkward, absurd, self-deprecating—not adjectives I would typically use to describe a doctor. I read that when you saw patients, you felt you needed to act more serious than you wanted. True?
There’s a level of seriousness and decorum that’s expected of medical practice with good reason. In terms of public persona, a lot of doctors feel there’s no room at all for levity or personality or admissions that you don’t know everything and are not perfect and don’t have all the answers—and I think that’s a problem for healthcare. A lot of people find it alienating, like they’re being condescended to by the intellectual elite. I’m sort of overcorrecting in trying to be more approachable and a little less of the classically authoritative, patriarchal figure of the doctor, and more someone figuring it alongside everyone else.
Do your videos allow you to be truer to your personality or who you want to be as a doctor?
There are different types of patients. Some people want a doctor who projects a lot of certainty and will basically just tell you what they feel needs to be done, and that you’re going to be okay. Other patients want their doctor to be more of a partner, engaged in discussion at really granular levels. I think it’s a great skill of a doctor to be able to discern what kind of patient you are dealing with and what they need in any given situation and adapt on the fly instead of going endlessly through a little routine as if every patient wanted the same kind of relationship.
When did you start doing improv?
I started improv during my residency, and improv is deeply different from radiology. I was living in Chicago and then LA, and doing comedy at night and reading X-rays during the day. The people I really related to in my life at that point were people I met through the comedy scene. It sort of made me reevaluate and wonder what else was out there professionally. I had never done anything outside of medicine, and I wasn’t happy and needed to take some time to try something else. I was extremely fortunate to get a job as a low-level editor with The Atlantic editing health journalism, and that has evolved into me writing more and doing videos in a way that has kind of married these two worlds—medical science and comedy.
What do you think would happen if improv were incorporated into medical training?
There’s definitely room for a lot of doctors to think outside the box more, and to be afforded that latitude in practice. Improv is all about listening, and doctors tend not to be the best at that. We’re taught to have all the answers. I think in almost any profession people could benefit from at least an intro to improv class. It allows for a kind of non-judgmental, listening-intensive, spontaneous interaction that’s really rare anywhere else in the world. That’s just one way to make medical education more multidisciplinary. When premed students ask me what they should major in, I say humanities, not biology or chemistry. As medical practice becomes more driven by algorithms and data and tools we all have reference to—stuff that we used to have to memorize that we now don’t have to memorize—what makes doctors better than IBM Watson is really our ability to synthesize knowledge and to relate to people. I think the whole process of how we select and train doctors will change around this need. And for the better.
What are your thoughts about how to communicate information that is important to people in ways they will actually pay attention to? Are you happy with the way you are doing it?
I’m constantly figuring things out. I think there’s a lot of room in between [entertainment and learning]. The book I have coming out is sort of a narrative driven textbook of anatomy and physiology. I just remember thinking throughout undergrad and medical education, why are textbooks written in a way that seems to have total disregard for the reader’s interest—as if our only job here is to include all the facts and be accurate, but not to make you care by explaining the real-world importance of things. I’m not saying health-education material should flip all the way to the realm of cable news, where you are almost entirely driven by audience engagement, but I think something in between: remembering that people are reading and will only care about things insofar as they understand why they are important. I don’t have much interest in writing academic journal articles in the way most of them are currently executed. I have fun telling stories and making people laugh. So I don’t know what else I would want to be doing right now.
Any advice for people like me interested in journalism and medicine?
We need more doctors who are into public communication and education. For so long it was the expectation of doctors that they could just do one-on-one counseling with patients, and maybe teach medical students. Now everybody is getting so much of their information online. A lot of patients are basically coming to a doctor to confirm the diagnosis they made themselves. Why are we as physicians not leading that conversation more—putting information out in front of people whether it be through journalism or writing or public health?