Medical journalist uses her passion for science and storytelling to tackle health disparities.
Sometimes the best medicine begins with a well-told story. Medical journalist Celine Gounder, MD ’04, has covered the Ebola outbreak, the Zika virus, the coronavirus pandemic, and the opioid overdose and gun violence epidemics in print and on television. Now, Gounder hosts and produces the podcast American Diagnosis, on health and social justice, and the podcast Epidemic, offering in-depth coverage of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19) outbreak. A clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University, Gounder also cares for patients at Bellevue Hospital Center and tribal health facilities around the U.S. She was named one of People Magazine’s “25 Women Changing the World” in 2017. Below, she answers our questions about translating science into positive change.
What inspired you to shift your career focus to medical journalism?
The idea really dates back to when I was working in global health, studying tuberculosis and HIV in Brazil and Sub-Saharan Africa. A lot of the research we were doing was just living in academic journals. There was this huge gap in terms of translating the science into impact, and I’m all about impact. One of the most important ways to achieve that is to communicate the information to a broader audience — the public, policy makers, and activists, for example — who can make use of it.
Why did you decide to start a podcast?
It’s hard to tell a nuanced story about health care in 800 words or a five-minute TV spot. What attracted me to podcasting was the length of time people listen — usually the duration of their commute, about 20–30 minutes. They can multitask and have a little more bandwidth to take in something longer. I felt like this platform would allow me to tell more intimate stories.
How do you choose the themes of your podcast?
Each season of American Diagnosis explores a pressing social issue or a public health disparity we’re facing right now, like mental health or gun violence. When I launched the podcast in 2016, as politicians were chipping away at the Affordable Care Act, I witnessed the impact on my patients in the hospital. I felt like that’s where I needed to be in terms of story.
In 2016, you traveled the U.S. on an “ill-health tour.” What was that like and what did you learn from it?
In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, I felt like I was missing something. I set up short-term contract clinical jobs around the country so I could see what the problems were firsthand. I quickly gravitated toward working on Indian reservations and with tribal facilities, where I saw the greatest need and the biggest resource gaps. I learned a lot; a later season of American Diagnosis will focus on indigenous health and the intersections with history, culture and language.
What role can scholarships play in addressing some of the health disparities you’ve witnessed?
We know that when providers come from the communities their patients come from, when they share the same language and culture, patients’ outcomes are better. Scholarships are really important for diversifying the health care workforce. They’re a game-changer, particularly for people of color and immigrants. Scholarships allow you to entertain specialties, like family medicine and infectious disease, which are less lucrative, because you’re not as worried about paying off student debt.
How did your experience at UW Medicine help prepare you for your unique career path?
I learned how to advocate for myself, because if what you need in your job or training doesn’t exist, you may have to create it. UW Medicine has a really strong program in infectious diseases and public health, but when I was a medical student, there weren’t obvious ways to pursue global health as a career. So I co-founded the International Health Group to create more mentorship opportunities and infrastructure. It was nice to be supported in that effort by faculty and staff. Paul Ramsey was a big advocate; it was amazing to have him in my corner.
What do you enjoy about medical journalism and what’s next for you?
I’ve enjoyed being creative, as opposed to just climbing the ladder that’s been set out before me. For me, that’s fun. I get approached a lot about how others can be part of something like this, so in the future, I’d like to create opportunities for people in training, whether it’s medical students, residents or fellows.