Q&A with Hoosier James Hamblin of The Atlantic
His popular ”If Our Bodies Could Talk” video series is breaking down the barriers of traditional health reporting.
An Indiana University graduate, James Hamblin started his medical career as a radiologist at UCLA. It didn’t take him long to realize the hours he was spending in dark rooms studying CT scans weren’t making him nearly as happy as the ones he spent onstage, making people laugh doing improv with the Upright Citizens’ Brigade. “Medicine,” he jokes, “is for the most part a pretty comedy-free environment.” Abandoning the hospital, Hamblin found his professional footing as a senior editor for The Atlantic, a career move that has allowed him to marry his medical training with his quick wit. While his health reporting covers a broad range of topics (from the virtue of being short to infectious psychology), it’s the quirky appeal of his “If Our Bodies Could Talk” video series that has garnered him national media attention. (Buzzfeed designated him “the most delightful MD ever,” and Time listed his Twitter account among the top 140 best feeds of 2014.) We sat down with the young doc for a chat about the series and his plans for its expansion.
How do you come up with the material for “If Our Bodies Could Talk”?
From a practical perspective, I’m always thinking of topics that lend themselves to working with the video format, but overall, my aim is to cover health in an expansive way. Exploring happiness, well-being, diet, relationships, sleep, exercise, technology—the “social determinants” of health, to use a buzzphrase.
Do you have a favorite video in the series?
A lot of people tell me they love Sad Desk Lunch, but it’s hard to pick a favorite. The videos where it’s just me talking to the camera seem to get shared most.
Why do you think your novel approach to the videos is proving popular?
I think because it’s not just me saying “I’m a doctor, and that’s why you should be listening to me.” That kind of paternalistic approach isn’t working anymore in medicine. My generation wants more cooperation and open-mindedness from its physicians, to make health decisions together versus being told exactly what to do.
In one video, “Never Tell People How Old You Look,” you poke fun of your youthful appearance. Ever get tired of the Doogie Howser comparisons?
It’s definitely something I’ve heard a lot, but if you watch enough of these videos, you’ll see the joke is always on me. If one objective of these videos is to have a little fun with them, I’m never going to do that at the expense of someone I’m interviewing. Self-deprecation is an important part of comedy.
You graduated from IU in 2009. How deep are your Hoosier ties?
I grew up in Munster, and my whole family went to IU; my grandma still lives in Bloomington. I was the only one to go out of state for undergrad [Wake Forest], but I had a great time coming back for medical school in Indianapolis.
It has been suggested online that you’ll land a TV show one of these days. Where do you see your career taking you?
Right now, I want to stay focused on the video series—expanding it and getting more ambitious with the topics we’re exploring. I also want to start a podcast and keep writing articles. Maybe someday I’ll see patients again or work in public policy. There’s not a day that passes where some part of me doesn’t think about going back to clinical work. And yet I feel extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I don’t want any of this to end anytime soon.