Life Beyond Medicine | Trying to empty the sea with a bucket – what it’s like to be in medical journalism.

In Mentorship by Christopher Labos4 Comments

“Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.”

– Stephen Hawking

Batman vs. the Snake Oil

Despite my somewhat fatalistic title, I love what I do. I’m like Batman. By day, I treat patients with heart disease, a. fib, or aortic stenosis and also do my Clin Epi research in cardiovascular risk prediction. But by night, I don my hood and cowl (actually a faded sweater) and try to make the world a better place … by writing.

I am medical journalist because I believe we have an imperative to educate the public. I do it because there a lot of charlatans out there who deceive honest hardworking people into giving up their money for worthless “miracle” cures. But I also do it because – more often than not – the things you hear on the news regarding health are just flat out wrong.

So, I try to fix it. I sit down at my computer and try to set the record straight. Homeopathy isn’t effective. Avocados don’t lower your cholesterol. Going out in the cold without a scarf won’t make you sick. Diet pills are really dangerous. And so on.


Used courtesy of XKCD comics, original link here.


The Bucket, the Sea, and Me

Sometimes I despair because the Internet is so vast and the amount of scientific nonsense can be overwhelming. I watch the news and shake my head when they say, “A new study has found that …” and then proceed to say that strawberries cure heart disease or milk causes prostate cancer, or some other ridiculous claim.

But I keep fighting the good fight.

Partly because I think I can make a difference, but also because I actually enjoy doing it. I like the art of writing. I like conquering that blank white page and putting my words on it. And if a few people happen to read my stuff so much the better.\

And every so often you do something that you’re really proud of. I just finished writing up a story for the National Post, not published yet, about how Health Canada regulates natural health products. I spent weeks researching the story, conducting interviews and poring through the pages and pages of regulations Health Canada published.

Not many people would see that as fun, but I do. And that’s fundamentally the point I want to make here.


The Privilege of the “Doctor Day Job”

When starting up a new career or endeavor, make sure it’s something you are passionate about. In medicine, you have a rare luxury that most people will never have. As a doctor, you never really have to worry about money. Like many new graduates you may be seriously angry about the lack of opportunities and the saturation of the market, especially in major cities. And you may be upset that you can’t get hospital privileges to match all the extra training you did. But ultimately, you will never be unemployed. Underemployed maybe, but never without a job.

So, take your financial security and do something you love (presumably you also love helping people who are sick which is why you got into medicine). Kayak, climb mountains, run marathons, paint, do amateur theatre, start a blog (just not a multi-author blog targeted as Canadian emergency medicine learners: D), or, if you are like me, write.

Because the self-fulfillment you get from these activities is worth its weight in gold. We all know medicine can sometimes be hard, thankless, and unforgiving. That’s why it’s so important to have these “other” activities that give you joy.

Medical journalism isn’t for everyone obviously. It can be frustrating and I frequently pull my hair out when I see stuff on the Internet or the nightly news. But I feel like what I’m doing is important even if it does seem futile sometimes. But the thing is, even if you are trying to empty the sea with a bucket, it still means you’re spending your time on the beach.

And that’s not a bad place to be.

Christopher Labos

Christopher Labos MD CM, MSc FRCPC Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health McGill UniversityChristopher Labos is a cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology and biostatistics. He spends most of his time doing things that he doesn’t get paid for, like doing research, teaching, and writing for this blog. Occasionally, he finds time to practice as a cardiologist so he can pay his rent. He realizes that half of his research findings will be disproved in 5 years, he just does’t know which half. He is a freelance contributor for the Montreal Gazette, National Post, and Globe and Mail and has also appeared on CBC Radio and CBC Television. To date no one has recognized him on the street.