Sanjay Gupta thinks of himself as a physician first and foremost. The fact that, thanks to the genius of cable networking, his patient base is the entire world, is a secondary matter. This perspective became abundantly clear earlier this year when Sanjay, covering a story on the Devil Docs for CNN in Iraq, performed an emergency brain surgery on a young Iraqi boy. The Devil Docs are physicians in the US navy who work with the US marines, and Sanjay had gone to Iraq specifically to share their story with viewers. Little did he realize that he himself would become the story.
The boy treated by Sanjay was in a taxi that drove through a US marine checkpoint south of Baghdad. When the taxi didn't stop, according to CNN, the marines opened fire. The child was seen as having only minutes to live before Sanjay, the only neurosurgeon on site, was asked by the other physicians to operate. When asked about this experience, Sanjay underplays it. It didn't seem like there was anything special about the day and I didn't think it was that monumental. I was asked by the doctors there to take a look at a child who'd been shot in the head, and I did. I decided the child needed an operation and ended up performing the operation because I had a particular skill set for that particular day, for that particular time.
Sanjay Gupta graduated from the University of Michigan Medical Center and, during his residency in neurosurgery, was selected to be part of the prestigious White House Fellowship programme.
Today, Gupta is an on-air personality at CNN: host of a half-hour weekend show, Weekend House Call, and is seen covering breaking medical news throughout the day and night. At the same time, Sanjay remains on the staff of Atlanta's Emory University where he practices neurosurgery two days a week.
How then do his medical colleagues respond to his doctor-by-day-TVguy-by-night persona? He says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The feedback has been good. Medical information is received in all sorts of ways, not just from doctor to patient. A lot of medical info gets out to the public and potential patients through the Internet, radio, newspaper, TV, etc. So, it's really important for people who have the training doctors or other health care professionals “ to be the ones giving those messages or being responsible. The danger is misinformation because this is all very actionable stuff, and therefore most doctors end up feeling that it's good to have someone involved who knows what they're talking about.
How does Gupta feel about doctoring to the masses? I think the medical education process has become so narrow over the last several years that, as a result, doctors remain doctors. It doesn't have to be that way. It never used to be that way: doctors used to be real citizens of society and that's how I approach it. He shares, You do a show like the one we have just completed and you get several hundred thousand million viewers and that's great. But it's not the only way. I think there are other very good ways. Public service through the Department of Health and Human Services, or working at the state or federal government level, in addition to practising medicine, are all good ways.
Sanjay remains tied to India and interested in the health care issues of South Asia. In fact, he has plans to join former president Clinton for a trip to India in November this year. The purpose of the visit is to strategize about the HIV/AIDS issue that is sweeping the subcontinent. The goal is to generate greater public awareness of the issue and then strategize ways to combat the problem.
Sanjay, however, doesn't see his role ending there. Instead, he has brainstormed an innovative programme that he dubs The Heroes of HIV, which he hopes to launch in the near future. This programme capitalizes on the hearts and minds of second generation Indian Americans who, like himself, have grown up with all the benefits of US resources and education and still nurture a desire to work in India.
He explains, If you think of the psyche of our generation, one of the things that's most important to us is India and South Asia. It's hard for us to work out a concrete plan in terms of how we give back to or help our native India. We are therefore starting to come up with a plan under which physicians, recent graduates, college students, young professionals, medical students can actually do something specific to target the HIV population in India. It's an opportunity for younger and older people to go back, define the problem of HIV, and offer some concrete solutions and interventions. The idea is to take some of the best resources of this country: people who want to go back and help.
When asked where he sees himself ten years from now, he remains modest but focussed, I'd like to get back to doing some public service work. I'd love to be in a position within government. Perhaps a policy person, and be in a position to catalyze change. It's an exciting time for health care. A lot is going to change over the next ten years and I'd like to be someone who's a part of that. We'd be surprised if it does not work out that way.