From: Norman Bauman <>
Subject: Interviewing big-name doctors
Date: 15 September 2000 01:34 PM 9/15/00

>I think it very unlikely that a
>"distinguished doctor" would take the time or the trouble to answer
>questions from a medical ignoramus if indeed he could ever be induced to
>come to the phone. These people are protected by a phalanx of secretaries
>and receptionists. They have to be. Their lives are just too busy. But I do
>realise that quotations and views of a consultant carry the stamp of

That's a good point. I run into it all the time. But there are ways to get through to them. That's a big part of being a medical writer. I'm pleasantly surprised sometimes that a big shot doctor will talk to me.

  1. The first step, I think, is to do your homework, understand the field, and read the doctor's papers. It's *much* better to leave a message, or send a fax, which says, "I read your paper...." Many doctors don't like to talk to stupid reporters, but they will talk to somebody who seems to understand the subject and is looking for an answer to an important question, not an elementary lecture that you could just as easily get from a textbook.

    I realize that doesn't answer your original question, of getting a doctor to talk to a "medical ignoramus." The answer is, "Don't be a medical ignoramus." That problem can be cured. If you're not willing to do some background research on a complicated story, then I don't think you can do medical journalism. That is true.

  2. Contact the PR department, which, as I explained on my website, is usually listed in the Science Sources page on Eurekalert (although you must first register for Eurekalert.) They can often round up the distinguished doctor.

  3. Use the clout of your publication, which you can do if you're writing for a significant publication, like Nature Medicine or Scientific American. Often your editor can make the connection. [See my Nature magazines story]

  4. Use your publication's own editorial board. They should be distinguished leading doctors.

  5. Know which big-shot doctors return calls and which don't. If a publication gives you an assignment, it's very helpful if they give you their past articles on the subject, or if you can look them up on the web. Doctors who have been quoted before are more likely to be interviewed again. Doctors who are quoted in the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or doctors who write popular books or articles themselves, are also more likely to talk to you, although not as likely as they would to talk to the NYT.

  6. Catch them at meetings, where they give talks.

  7. Talk to their associates. In a major paper, you might find 6 co-authors. If you can't get through to one, call a few others. Most of them can give you the same information.

I've gotten through to some big-name doctors. Pat Walsh of Johns Hopkins is probably the biggest name in prostate cancer surgery, and the Johns Hopkins PR department arranged an interview that lasted half an hour. Many of the people I interview for Urology Times are major researchers, and often a lot of fun, like Anthony Atalia, who grows artificial organs. I once called Wassily Leontief, the Nobel Laureate in economics, and got right through to him on the phone.

In part, it's a numbers game. You have to call more people than you get through to.

Maybe the best advice I can give is from one of the great trial lawyers, Edward Bennet Williams. F. Lee Bailey once asked Williams how he so often saved the day by pulling a rabbit out of the hat at the most propitious courtroom moments. Williams said: "Bring 50 hats and 50 rabbits to court and hope that you get lucky."

Sometimes you just can't get through to them. Christopher Logothetis is a urologist who doing major work on gene therapy. He's never returned my calls. We were talking about Logothetis in the American Urological Association press room. No one has ever known him to return a reporter's calls. Fortunately he's not the only one doing that work.

You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need.

I'm not saying that medical journalism is easy. It's not. That's how we get rid of the competition. But at the end of a hard job, you can wind up with a great story.