When Katie Couric joined CBS Evening News as its anchor and managingeditor last September after a 15-year run as co-anchor of NBC's Todayshow, 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 enhancedhealth 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'regetting ready to beef it up even more."
It's no wonder that Couric, who has evolved from local reporter to perkymorning host to prominent evening news anchor, is passionate about the subjectof health -- and her mission to raise awareness of preventive screenings and anever-growing list of educational resources.
Couric's life has been touched repeatedly, and at times tragically, byserious health issues. She lost her husband, television legal commentator JayMonahan, to colorectal cancer in 1998, just a few months after his diagnosis.Her sister, Virginia State Sen. Emily Couric, died in 2001 from pancreaticcancer. And last year Couric revealed that her 86 year-old-father, John, haslong battled Parkinson's disease, the condition that damages nerve cells in thebrain and affects the body's muscle function and balance.
And so, it seems, she can't help but see health issues from both sides ofthe news desk -- as a reporter intent on delivering the latest breakthroughs inmedical research to her audience, and as a wife, mother, sister, and daughterwho understands what it's like to feel overwhelmed by a diagnosis, to searchfor answers and the best treatments, and to need expert guidance.
Which is one reason that medical coverage has become the cornerstone of herCBS Evening News broadcast. And she's convinced that her viewers arehungry for it.
"When you ask consumers what they're interested in, health and medicineare right up there at the top," Couric tells WebMD. That's a totaltransformation, she says, from the days when people knew little about their ownbodies, felt powerless to question their doctors, and rarely read medicalheadlines. "I think there's been a real sea change in the way medical careis consumed. Patient advocacy is a relatively new phenomenon, and now it's morecollaborative."
She says several factors have played a role in the switch: Managed care hasforced patients to learn more about their health; the Internet has made itpossible to learn about everything from tonsillitis to trauma; and theall-powerful baby boomers -- trying to defy the inevitable -- are doingwhatever 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 7.6million a night -- are eating up the news about their health. According to aCBS Evening News staff member, the network receives thousands ofpositive emails after health installments on the broadcast, a clear testamentto the value that viewers place on medical information. Among the health topicsrecently broadcast were the decline in cancer deaths, the new cervical cancervaccine, brain health, supplements, and ways to beat the high cost ofprescription drugs. And in March, Couric will introduce a three-part seriescalled "Bedside Manner," which focuses on improving the communicationbetween doctors and their patients.
If Couric can make her viewers more aware of risks, educate them aboutwarning signs, and persuade them to get screened and tested, then she isachieving 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 gotsick. 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 youdon't have to be."
Fighting Cancer Behind the Scenes
After her husband's death, Couric used the connections she had made duringher years in broadcasting to strengthen the fight against the nation's top twocancer killers -- lung and colorectal cancer. She teamed up with LillyTartikoff (whose husband, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff, died of Hodgkin'sdisease at age 48) and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, the philanthropicheart of the entertainment industry, to form the National Colorectal CancerResearch Alliance in 2000. The NCCRA has recruited the country's top minds inscience and medicine to work together toward creating more effective, lessinvasive diagnostic screenings and, eventually, finding a cure.
Since then, NCCRA public education initiatives and Couric's own colonoscopyon Today in 2000 have encouraged people to get screened. Right after hertelevised procedure and for a few subsequent months, colonoscopy screening inthe United States jumped by nearly 20%. University of Michigan researchers, whostudied the increase, nicknamed it "The Couric Effect." And accordingto the American Cancer Society, the colon cancer death rate dropped by morethan that of any other major cancer in 2003-2004.
The message is clear: Educating the public that colon cancer can bedetected, prevented, and often cured has saved lives.
This sounds like a simple formula, but the business of empowering consumersabout their health isn't always straightforward, and Couric says the media aresometimes to blame. "Often media go for the quick headline, and it's ourresponsibility to put it in perspective and not misrepresent studies," shesays. "The tendency is to present these issues in black-and-white terms,and that often isn't the case."
Another media misstep is presenting medical news in doctor-speak. Assomething of a self-taught medical expert, thanks to her endless hours ofresearch when Monahan was sick, Couric has a knack for explaining complexmedical stories in layperson's terms. "I had to quickly learn extremelycomplicated medical concepts, and I had to learn how to ask the rightquestions," she says. "I think I was able to synthesize these conceptsand distill them for myself, and that helps me explain them to others."
Couric is interested in almost any medical issue, and she sees it as her jobto attack misconceptions about medicine and share reliable information in aneasily digestible way. She now has several platforms in which to do that: her22-minute evening broadcast; the Couric & Co. blog (on which she coverseverything from her minister's sermon about doubt and questioning, to how to gogreen in your home); and online outlets such as YouTube, where her exclusiveinterview last October with Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's, has beenviewed by more than a half million people. (CBS has also teamed with WebMD'steam of journalists to find and develop the best health news for herbroadcast.)
Noting the multiple other sources of health information available, Couricsays she can't even remember what the world was like without facts and figuresat one's fingertips. "What did people do when they wanted to research?"she says, laughing. "Did they go to the library and look it up in the Deweydecimal system?"
The blessing of the information age is that Google pulls up 18.5 millionhits for "colon cancer" in less than a tenth of a second. But theproblem, says Couric, is that many of the links are not particularlylegitimate. Just as it is worth taking the time to find a doctor who is a goodmatch, Couric says it is worth taking the time to identify web sites thatprovide accurate, updated information and put it in perspective forconsumers.
These outlets are critical not only for providing facts about diseases,testing, and prevention, Couric says, but also for the emotional support."I wish I knew about web sites like WebMD when Jay was sick. For thosehungry for information and for a connection, I think places like that -- withchat rooms and an online communities -- are invaluable."
Couric says she felt incredibly isolated and lonely during that period."It would have been great to say, 'Hey, does anyone know about thisclinical trial?' It might have helped me at least feel like I wasn't doing italone. When you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, you're thrustinto this world of difficult choices. It's a very jarring and scaryexperience."
When it comes to choosing her own doctors, Couric places a premium on"personal referrals and geographic desirability. In our hectic lives, wedon't have time to travel 40 minutes to get to a doctor. My doctor is nearby,and the girls' pediatrician is just a few blocks away. I'm lucky -- I haveaccess to some of the best doctors in the country through my work, but thereare so many fine doctors out there. Ask your friends. The comfort level youfeel with physicians is so important. You need to establish a relationship withthe doctor so you are comfortable talking about your symptoms and underlyingreasons that might not otherwise come up. It's important to feel like thatdoctor cares."
Finally adjusted to a new work schedule (broadcasting in the evening insteadof the early morning), Couric says her own health care plan focuses on attitudeas she continues to juggle single motherhood with her job and her advocacycommitments.
"I try to take care of myself, but I don't spend my time worrying aboutthings," she says one afternoon from her studio, between bites of RiceKrispies. "More than ever, I appreciate getting up and feeling well. Whenyou and your family are healthy, that's such a gift. I try to be mindful ofthat all the time."
Admittedly, Couric, who turned 50 in January, is no health nut (and nevermet a cookie she didn't like), but she tries to stay healthy and exercise,including practicing yoga. When it comes to feeling good, though, her trumpcard is sleep. "Sleep is very underrated," she says. "I love tosleep and try to make sure I'm getting enough. Ideally, it's eight hours but Icould sleep 10." If she doesn't get enough sleep or misses a workout,Couric doesn't beat herself up. "If I eat two cupcakes I say, 'Whoops,' butI don't feel bad about it for two days."
She also says she doesn't get stressed out (except the kind on which shethrives). Certainly, there are stressful times -- in January she was doing a60 Minutes interview with singer Nora Jones and realized she had only 20minutes to make it downtown to interview Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. No smalltask in New York City. (She made it.)
And she is definitely concerned about her daughters, already thinking aboutwhen her 11- and 15-year-old should be screened for colon cancer, given thattheir father had the disease. But Couric doesn't want to become obsessive abouttheir health, or her own. Every night, the three of them eat dinner togetherafter the broadcast.
"I want to set a good example for them, and I want to stay healthy forthem," she says. "Modern medicine is truly remarkable, and if you takepreventive measures -- including mammograms, colonoscopies, cholesterol checks-- you are your own best advocate. You have to make sure you'll be around aslong as possible for the people who depend on you and the people youlove."