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Los Angeles Times

Physician Seeks Prescription for Media Success

By SUSAN VAUGHN, Special to The Times
Sunday, December 17, 2000

Like many of her physician peers, V.Y. Height has grown disillusioned with the practice of medicine. While in private practice, she lost patients to HMOs and became exasperated waiting for insurance carriers to reimburse her.

Several years ago, Height, who is board-certified in internal medicine, board-qualified in occupational medicine and holds a master's degree in toxicology, decided to dissolve her private practice.

But instead of walking away from medicine, she opted to maintain a three-day-a-week commitment with a federal agency as its medical consultant.

Her compensation from the agency is excellent--$300,000 annually. However, the 44-year-old Redlands resident said she's craving a new challenge--a way to use her medical expertise to educate the public while continuing to earn a six-figure income.

"You feel somewhat trapped because you think you only know how to be a doctor," Height said. After a 19-year investment in her medical training, she said, "it would be too much to start a totally new career and have the reduction of income that it would bring."

Height now is interested in medical broadcasting. In that occupation, she said, she could utilize her clinical training, help people, and, hopefully, pull in a good salary. To learn more about the field, she sent letters of inquiry to medical correspondents at CBS, NBC and ABC. But none responded.

She was grateful that Dr. Dean Edell, an Emmy Award-winning radio and television broadcaster, offered to give her advice. Other on-air medical personalities also contributed tips.

"I've always been a good speaker," Height told Edell. "I think my writing skills are OK. I just feel I could do it. And I think I'd have no problem reading a TelePrompTer."

Edell suggested that Height not limit her aspirations to television. She should explore opportunities in radio and print and on the Internet.

Breaking into radio might not be financially rewarding for Height, at least at first, but it shouldn't prove too daunting, Edell said. She could call in to radio shows, identify herself as a physician and comment on the shows' medical and health issues. Once she'd gained confidence in her on-air presentations, she could propose topics and offer herself as a guest commentator, he said.

In the print field, newspapers frequently publish "Ask the Doctor" columns, Edell said. Height may wish to consider writing one to increase her exposure and establish herself as an expert.

The Internet has more than 15,000 health sites. Height may wish to approach some of them about writing assignments.

Becoming a television medical personality is probably the most difficult media career to break into. Many doctors are trying to enter this arena and are querying established broadcasters for tips and assistance, said those interviewed. The physicians bombard stations with resumes, some listing impressive credentials, honors and medical experience. But, unfortunately, the resumes mean little to television executives, who are looking for individuals who can appeal to their audiences.

"I wish credentials were more important in the field of broadcasting, and my pitch is to make credentials more important," Edell said. "But the truth is, the low man on the totem pole in [broadcast] reporting may not even have taken biology in high school."

To build up proficiencies necessary for television work, Edell suggested that Height first practice broadcasting at home by setting up a camera and reading a news transcript. She also may wish to hire a broadcast coach and attend the American Medical Assn.'s annual Medical 
Communications and Health Reporting Conference.

Ultimately, though, she'll need to produce a good demo tape to submit to stations. A broadcast coach can help her prepare this.

"When you send a resume to TV or radio, it's likely to get lost in the clutter," Edell said. "Wait until you have a tape you can send. They want to see what you look like, how you sound."

Because Height has a New York accent, she should consider voice classes to develop an "all-American voice," said Anna Marie Chwastiak, a medical reporter and producer for the ABC affiliate in Baltimore.

"An accent can get in your way," said Chwastiak, who has a New York accent. "Management keeps telling me that if I expect to go into a larger market, it's going to hurt me. Voice, unfortunately, is very important, that is, except if she wants to get into a local New York market, because then it wouldn't be a problem."

Before Height sends out her demo tape, she should have it critiqued by broadcast pros, Edell said. To build contacts in the field, Height may wish to join the National Assn. of Medical Communicators.

And while she's trying to land work, she may want to hire a publicist to get her on television and radio shows as an expert (sometimes referred to in the business as a "talking head"), suggested Bruce Hensel, a board-certified internist and emergency medicine specialist who has done medical, health and science reporting for KNBC-TV Channel 4 since 1987.

Morning and noon shows might be most receptive to Height "because they have a lot of time to fill," said Diana Penna, a health reporter for 10 years who works for the CBS affiliate in Sacramento.

To attract show bookers' attention, Height should come up with as many intriguing story ideas as possible, based on her medical expertise. 

"They're always looking for something their competition doesn't have," Edell said.

He added that in the near future doctors may be hired by television news shows explicitly for their specialty knowledge. "Take advantage of your specialty because I think that's the next wave," Edell told Height. "Your subject--internal medicine and toxicology--is of vital importance to everyone."

Even if Height manages to break into television medical reporting, there is no guarantee she can meet her salary goal. Typically, physicians must hone their on-air skills in small regional markets with limited viewership. These jobs pay much less than $100,000 annually but demand quite a bit from their medical broadcasters.

In many cases, the physician-broadcasters have to generate stories, do research, conduct interviews, tape voice-overs, do in-house tapings and produce and edit their segments, Chwastiak said.

Chwastiak added that, even in a market the size of Baltimore, a medical correspondent/producer might earn $80,000 a year. Only a few medical broadcasters in the New York and Los Angeles markets earn more than $250,000, those interviewed said.

"You need to let people know that this is not something to do for the money," said Jack Thomas, an on-air medical consultant and head of the residency program at Pacific Hospital in Long Beach. "It is something to do because you have something to say, a point of view and a passion."

Because Height probably will need to generate other income as she attempts to make inroads as a medical media personality, she sought advice from career counselor Allie Roth about other options.

Roth gave Height a series of assessment tests, quizzing her about her interests, successes and the two women concluded that Height might feel greatly fulfilled--and possibly be able to meet her financial goal--as a geriatric consultant.

"I'm getting calls every week from people who want to know how to handle their parents with Alzheimer's [disease]," said Roth encouraged her to consider this option. But they also agreed that, with Height's considerable medical background, drive and interest in helping others, she will have many possible paths to explore.

"I had lost touch with myself, but now I'm working to raise my motivation again," Sacks said. "I'm reorganizing my life. A little diversity [through extracurricular activities] won't be such a bad thing."

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