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Focus interview with freelance journalist Dr Trisha Macnair

Dr Trisha Macnair is a freelance journalist and part time doctor. She juggles working for the BBC and writing and consulting on various health-related books with rehabilitation for the elderly after acute illness.

This week, we caught up with Trisha to discuss her ideal week and the workings of the brain.

About your journalism:

What do you write about?
I write on health and medicine. I’m also a doctor working part time in a hospital which offers rehabilitation for the elderly after acute illness – we take older patients with complex needs from the local district general hospital where they are slowly recovering after falls, heart attacks, broken hips, strokes, pneumonia etc, and we put them through a course of rehab aimed to help them get back to their owns homes and lead an independent or semi-independent life.

Where are we likely to see your work?
I write mostly for BBCi on their general health website (not the BBC News health website) but also contribute for a myriad of other publications for both the public and health professions, and also to many of the BBC Radio networks, including Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, Radio 2 and the World Service. You may also see my work in the bookshop – in the past year or two I have written or acted as consultant on a lot of books (too many – I have found the discipline and staying power required for books very taxing and I would like to get back to writing shorter features and articles). Topics have ranged from “100 ways to live forever – almost” to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (one of the “Dummies” series), a workbook on Communication in Cancer for health professionals, and a number of children’s books, including Medical Ethics for Key Stage 4 and currently a book on sex aimed at teenagers readers. You might also see me at international conferences, where I do a lot of presenting and chairing of symposia and press briefings.

Whoah this is beginning to sound like one hectic life… no wonder I always feel tired!

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
A radio interview about TB with Archbishop Desmond Tutu for BBC World Service, where he talked eloquently about his childhood (when he had TB) and his later work against apartheid. Another very memorable piece of work, perhaps because I was particularly proud of it, was a website on genetics and health for the BBC which won an award from the Medical Journalists Association.

I also have great memories of working some years ago as the “medical expert” on Caron Keating’s TV series for ITV “After 5” – it was a surreal mix where I had to present serious features on health amid the antics of music, movie and sporting stars – one week would see me destroying all my credibility by dancing (reluctantly) with Lionel Blair as I talked about soft tissue injuries, while another I would be swapping notes on hangovers with Take That or doing an outside broadcast from London Zoo on phobias with a boa constrictor curling round my neck and a tarantula creeping up my arm.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
The joy of working in medicine is that it throws up a never ending supply of interesting issues – there are so many I would love to look at in more depth but in particular it is aspects of how the brain functions that really grab my attention – once upon a time I might have been a neurologist. Something which I would really like to explore is the experience of dementia from the perspective of an individual affected by it (partly because I watch every day how it affects many of my patients) as well as the evolving science behind it (I feel its important to paint a thorough scientific background to my stories). Imagine being in a shop or somewhere unfamiliar when two complete strangers march up to you, whisk you off to the toilet and start to undress you, telling you that they are helping you with your basic needs – that’s just a tiny snapshot of how my patients with dementia may see the world, not longer certain of where they are, who the people around them are or what is happening to them.

Another, also brain related, is the way that the brain recovers after a stroke. In the US they are doing some interesting research into the way the brain learns new skills and the implications for recovery after stroke. Having taken up a musical instrument for the first time a few years ago, I have become fascinated about the way that the brain learns.

About you and PRs:

Where do you source ideas for articles?
Mostly from my patients and their problems, and from new research in the journals I read. Sometimes from press briefings or press releases.

How can PRs be useful to you?
By providing pointers to interesting new developments, contacts with people who have something to say, and insights into problems that I am not aware of.

How and when do you like them to get in touch?
Email is always best ( as I can read and digest the info at my leisure (often after the children have gone to bed, which gets later and later!) and then follow it up when I have time.

Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
Press conferences and trips can be a great way to network, hear what’s going on and pin down experts – the best ideas often pop up during the coffee break or dinner after the meeting when there is time to chat in a more relaxed way, but it can be hard to make the time out from desk work especially if the conference is abroad and I have to juggle family as well as work. I’m not so good at parties – I either tend to retreat into my shell or have such a good time that I can’t remember what I went to the party for !

If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
Possibly simply to spend a little time to get to know each other better – the PRs I do know well know exactly how I work and what I need, and I feel able to be quite frank with them about the value of the information that they are offering and whether I can use it. But as to who I can develop that special relationship with? Guess it’s the same chemistry that applies to other friendships, although a good understanding of medicine and science helps – it drives me crazy when I am talking to someone who doesn’t really know their topic, and those PRs with a formal science/health background tend to shine out.

About you:

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
I suppose I’d have to say that I would develop my medical career further but really I’d love to have a totally eclectic portfolio career. On Mondays I would be a textile designer (my beaded curtains are legendary). On Tuesdays I would be a market gardener (my vegetable patch gives me huge solace from the stresses of the day). On Wednesdays I would be just be an earth mother calming my guilt about working and tending my children’s needs while my husband paid the bills. On Thursdays I would be a rock star (my band Riff Raff would second that) while on Fridays I would get a grip on reality, realise there was only one way to pay the bills, and get to work with my stethoscope.

If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
I’d love to name a local deserving charity that I would give it to (probably our local hospice) but in truth I’m as selfish as the next person so it would be a tough choice between a weekend away with the family (Scotland, Venice or the ski slopes) or some lessons in pedal steel guitar. But I suspect in the end I would simply pay off some of my credit card bills.

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
Blue Shoes and Happiness (one of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series) by Alexander McCall Smith
Slash – the autobiography of the guitarist (ex-Guns ‘n Roses)
A book called Unusual Psychiatric Syndromes (one of my patients has something very weird going on but we don’t have a diagnosis yet)
A couple of recent copies of the British Medical Journal and GP newspaper
Several copies of Q music magazine – a blog from an American doctor which I found via Cyberounds
U2’s blog spot : (just a passing phase)
And numerous articles ripped from newspaper and magazines waiting to be read…

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[img|jpg|Trisha Macnair broadcasting from a hot tub on the Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 show]