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A media GP

Dr Sarah Jarvis explains how her stimulating career as a media doctor came about – by accident

I am often asked by younger doctors for my tips on embarking on a career as a media doctor, and I have to tell them to seek advice elsewhere – not because I am trying to protect my own interests, but because my entire alternative career has depended on coincidence and accident. Indeed, the last day's work I applied for was my GP training scheme in 1986.

In my case, accident resulted in my becoming known to full-time journalists on radio and television – and this is undoubtedly the key to success. When I started my GP training year, my trainer asked me to become the trainee representative on my local RCGP faculty board. I rapidly became committed to the RCGP's attempts to encourage high-quality general practice, and after I attended the annual trainee representatives' conference, it became clear that I had overcome my pathological shyness enough to be noticed, and was asked to stand as trainee rep on the council of the RCGP.After my election I was approached by the RCGP to represent them at a conference on women and alcohol – at the time, women were very under-represented on the council, which is probably why I was given the opportunity. Part of my role involved giving television news interviews on the conference, and over the next few weeks ITN lunchtime news contacted me a few more times to seek my opinion on medical issues. This culminated with them inventing the role of ITN lunchtime news medical adviser, which I held until I was the victim of budget cuts.

Being available is essential

These days such roles are few and far between – especially if you hope to get paid. The BBC is now trying to produce dozens of TV and radio stations with a similar budget it used to expend on six stations, and hundreds of commercial TV and radio stations are fighting for the same advertising revenue 'pot' once shared by a handful of stations.

However, regular positions, such as my Monday lunchtime slot on radio 2 (which I do between finishing morning surgery and starting baby clinic), pay about half as much as a morning surgery. Certainly when you start out, you will have to be prepared to give interviews for free, and at antisocial hours.For those keen to get involved in the media, being available is essential – a day really is a long time in the media, and nobody will remember your brilliant insights two weeks ago if you have turned down two opportunities since then. If you are working regularly in general practice, that means having a very understanding practice or being prepared to give interviews at midnight after a full day at surgery, and the next day at 6am before surgery, if a news story breaks. By definition, you will never have more than a few hours' notice of news stories. Even keeping up to date through newspapers is no guarantee that you will be au fait with stories, which are usually written within hours of a press embargo being lifted and before they become general knowledge. The gift of confabulation when first approached and the ability to scan the internet quickly are mandatory! Most such interviews require your presence in the studio, and I could not have juggled all these commitments without living in London – although working for your regional radio or TV station is possible regardless of geography. If you have strict time constraints in your professional or domestic life, writing is much more feasible. When my children were small I wrote for at least two hours every night after I put them to bed. Now they are older, I regularly fly off to chair conferences all over Europe and occasionally further afield.

Do your homework

As a GP, you are eligible to comment on a far wider variety of stories than secondary care specialists – but will have to do your homework for each and every story. This can be hugely time-consuming. My best strategy for coping with the time pressures this creates is to use this knowledge to write articles about the same subjects in lay and medical journals and magazines, thus using a single piece of research for several pieces of paid work.

I have never had formal media training, but courses on presenting in public and avoiding the pitfalls of interviews can be very helpful. Associations such as the Medical Journalists Association (www.mja-uk.org/) offer an invaluable opportunity to network and share experiences with others in a similar position. They also advertise jobs in the media.Working in the media, even as a doctor, requires a very thick skin. After replying to a reader's question on Good Housekeeping about type 2 diabetes, the magazine received a nine-page letter of complaint about my irresponsible attitude – apparently I should have acknowledged that it was a 'very serious' condition, and was trivialising it by describing it as merely 'serious'.Likewise, I wrote a critical but, I thought, moderate and balanced piece about NICE in the Daily Mail after the publication of its draft guidance on secondary prevention of myocardial infarction. I had extracted a promise from the newspaper that it would publish the piece in its health section, as I did not want it sensationalised.It did this, but publicised it by devoting the entire top half of its front page to the banner headline 'How NICE sentences patients to death – by a leading GP'. NICE were not amused!On the whole, my patients rather enjoy seeing or hearing me on TV or radio – although they do complain more vociferously if I, as opposed to another partner, am not available. Apparently it's permissible to be absent from the surgery for domestic reasons, but not to broadcast to the nation.Overall, I am delighted with my accidental career – it is hugely stimulating and allows me to get paid for keeping my medical knowledge up to date. But it is not easy, it is not glamorous and it is most certainly not an option for the fainthearted.

Dr Sarah Jarvis is a GP trainer in London, women's health spokesperson for the RCGP, and a regular contributor to Radio 2 and Good Housekeeping

key points

• When you start out, expect to give interviews for free, and at antisocial hours• Being available is essential – be prepared to comment on stories at short notice • Writing is more flexible for those with time constraints at home or work• Do your research for each and every story – but make the most of that research to write several paid articles• Being a media GP requires a very thick skin• Being a media GP is stimulating – but not easy, glamorous or for the fainthearted

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