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May 31, 2012

Chief resident thrives in fast-paced national newsroom

Emergency Medicine’s chief resident, Veronica Sikka, M.D., Ph.D., MHA, MPH, recently returned from her dream internship — a month in New York, N.Y., working for ABC News’ Medical Unit. Sikka took the unpaid internship as a step toward fulfilling her lifelong goal of working in broadcast journalism, but she was surprised to develop new skills that enhanced her role as a physician.

Emergency Medicine's chief resident, Veronica Sikka, M.D., Ph.D., MHA, MPH

Emergency Medicine’s chief resident, Veronica Sikka, M.D., Ph.D., MHA, MPH, interned for a month with ABC News’ Medical Unit.

“This internship was amazing. I went up there to learn more about journalism and came out of it learning how to connect with my patients on a personal level and with media. It’s really all about communicating clearly and without all the medical jargon we tend to use when we talk,” said Sikka, a four-time VCU graduate with distinguished academic and real-world public health experience.

ABC News’ internship program brought four residents from medical centers across the country to the network’s headquarters to help produce medical stories for Good Morning America, Inside Edition and World News Tonight. The residents worked closely with Richard Besser, M.D., the network’s chief health and medical editor, to translate scientific findings into health news that makes a difference in viewers’ lives.

Each morning, interns were assigned story topics. Then the hunt began: find experts to provide context, literature to validate the science and a “face,” or a patient who had experience with the topic in question. The interns’ summaries faced a 2 p.m. deadline. Had they created a package that was compelling enough for the evening news? With additional responsibilities for online coverage, interns worked throughout the day and evening, sometimes working on stories as late as 1 a.m.

Sikka, who grew up with a passion for journalism and a special affinity for ABC, thrived in the frenetic pace of TV news. She researched and wrote stories about prostate and lung cancer screenings, prescription medications for children, weight loss and more. Her online story detailing how inserting a colored potato chip in a stack of chips caused people to eat less generated 500,000 hits — a record high for an online medical piece.

She said the highlight of the month was developing a story about the increase of children swallowing lithium batteries, which aired on World News Tonight. Sikka recognized the importance of telling the story of dangerously ill children who were arriving in emergency rooms after ingesting the batteries. Her coverage generated a follow-up story in a widely-read emergency medicine newsletter for physicians.

Veronica Sikka with Diane Sawyer on the set of ABC News.

Sikka with Diane Sawyer on the set of ABC News.

“You feel you’re actually reaching out to the lay public in a way that makes a difference,” Sikka said. “As a physician, you’re making a difference one patient at a time. In media broadcasting, you’re making a difference to millions of people at one time.”

Sikka’s passion and commitment was recognized at ABC News. The Medical Unit saw Sikka’s public health experience and talent, and asked her to review medical literature to determine its value and to write stories for the Web and for television. She researched eight stories that aired on television and wrote eight online pieces during her time at ABC News.

As she prepared to return to the MCV Campus, Sikka asked Besser for advice on how to keep her communication skills sharp as a practicing physician harboring dreams of a broadcast career. Besser said to take every patient as a practice session, and focus on explaining medical information in the clear, concise and jargon-free manner she learned to use at ABC News.

When Sikka applied this advice, she noticed an immediate connection with her patients. “Something clicked. They got what I was explaining to them,” she said.

Sikka will finish her residency in June and begin as an attending emergency medicine physician at the VCU Medical Center. She plans to pursue her interests in health news by continuing to write for ABCNews.com and perhaps branching out to the Richmond Times-Dispatch or ABC News affiliates.

“Overall, this was an amazing experience and only further confirmed my passion for
medical broadcasting,” she said. “I am more confident about my decision to pursue a career in medical journalism and relate better to my patients. I have Drs. Joseph Ornato, Mary Alice O’Donnell and Renee Reid to thank for making it possible for me to spend time at an away rotation in New York.”

In her month at ABC, Sikka produced eight online stories including:

  1. More Kids in ER from Swallowing Batteries
  2. Colored Potato Chips Slow Snacking
  3. Govt. Panel Scuttles Prostate Cancer Testing Recommendations
  4. Major Cancer Groups Recommend CT Scans for Lung Cancer
  5. How Do Docs Prescribe Kids’ Meds? Guess
  6. When You Eat May Trump What You Eat for Weight Loss
  7. Beijing Olympics Show Air Pollution-Heart Attack Link
  8. Coffee Drinkers Have Lower Risk of Overall Death, Study Shows

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Updated: 04/29/2016