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Katie Couric Makes Health Headlines

The CBS Evening News anchor is committed to broadcasting her passion for prevention, new research, and resources.
By Melanie D. G. Kaplan
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

When Katie Couric joined CBS Evening News as its anchor and managing editor last September after a 15-year run as co-anchor of NBC's Today show, she famously became the first woman to hold that solo anchor position. Behind the scenes, she also became a driving force behind CBS's newly enhanced health and medical coverage.

"I told [my producers], 'We must have a strong medical unit,'" Couric says. In response, they've "really beefed it up, and I think we're getting ready to beef it up even more."

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It's no wonder that Couric, who has evolved from local reporter to perky morning host to prominent evening news anchor, is passionate about the subject of health -- and her mission to raise awareness of preventive screenings and an ever-growing list of educational resources.

Couric's life has been touched repeatedly, and at times tragically, by serious health issues. She lost her husband, television legal commentator Jay Monahan, to colorectal cancer in 1998, just a few months after his diagnosis. Her sister, Virginia State Sen. Emily Couric, died in 2001 from pancreatic cancer. And last year Couric revealed that her 86 year-old-father, John, has long battled Parkinson's disease, the condition that damages nerve cells in the brain and affects the body's muscle function and balance.

And so, it seems, she can't help but see health issues from both sides of the news desk -- as a reporter intent on delivering the latest breakthroughs in medical research to her audience, and as a wife, mother, sister, and daughter who understands what it's like to feel overwhelmed by a diagnosis, to search for answers and the best treatments, and to need expert guidance.

Which is one reason that medical coverage has become the cornerstone of her CBS Evening News broadcast. And she's convinced that her viewers are hungry for it.

"When you ask consumers what they're interested in, health and medicine are right up there at the top," Couric tells WebMD. That's a total transformation, she says, from the days when people knew little about their own bodies, felt powerless to question their doctors, and rarely read medical headlines. "I think there's been a real sea change in the way medical care is consumed. Patient advocacy is a relatively new phenomenon, and now it's more collaborative."

She says several factors have played a role in the switch: Managed care has forced patients to learn more about their health; the Internet has made it possible to learn about everything from tonsillitis to trauma; and the all-powerful baby boomers -- trying to defy the inevitable -- are doing whatever they can to combat aging to ensure that they have long, healthy, active lives.

So it comes as little surprise that Couric's viewers -- an average 7.6 million a night -- are eating up the news about their health. According to a CBS Evening News staff member, the network receives thousands of positive emails after health installments on the broadcast, a clear testament to the value that viewers place on medical information. Among the health topics recently broadcast were the decline in cancer deaths, the new cervical cancer vaccine, brain health, supplements, and ways to beat the high cost of prescription drugs. And in March, Couric will introduce a three-part series called "Bedside Manner," which focuses on improving the communication between doctors and their patients.

If Couric can make her viewers more aware of risks, educate them about warning signs, and persuade them to get screened and tested, then she is achieving her goal, she says.

"I did a public service announcement once. It said: Don't end up saying 'If only.' Get tested," Couric says. "My husband was 41 when he got sick. He didn't even have a doctor. He thought -- like so many people his age -- that he was immortal. So my message is: You could be a statistic. And you don't have to be."

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