A Spoonful of Journalism: Medical Editor Discusses Health and Human Rights

As a young girl, Holly Atkinson was told by her mother that she could be more than a nurse: she could be a doctor. Now, after an accomplished medical and journalistic career, Atkinson is trying to inspire the next generation to pursue their loftiest goals.

On Thursday, Nov. 3, Dr. Holly Atkinson, senior on-air medical correspondent and chief medical editor at HealthiNation, came to campus for a meeting with about 15 students before delivering her lecture entitled, “Health and Human Rights.” The presentation, held in Lecture Center room 100, was part of the annual SUNY New Paltz Distinguished Speaker Series, which has brought two speakers to address the campus community each year since 2008.

Pat Sullivan, director of the SUNY New Paltz Honors Center, introduced Atkinson at both events, acknowledging her status as a well-known media communicator on wellness and describing her as “fascinating in all sorts of areas.”

At her pre-lecture discussion with students, most of whom were either media or biology majors, Atkinson discussed how she was able to blend her talents in medicine and journalism into a successful career. She discussed how students should “dream bigger than themselves” and encouraged them to follow their passions. At both events, Atkinson emphasized the power of “just showing up,” her belief that if the audience accepted invitations for events, then they could lead to new opportunities.

Continuing on similar themes at her lecture, Atkinson said that she was drawn into journalism due to passion as well as her persistent status as a minority in medical school. Additionally, she explained how she had been exposed to the school’s ignorance of what we know regard as the social determinants of health. These included African Americans and minorities not having access to healthcare or receiving adequate care from doctors.

“Communication is key,” she said. “If we can’t hear people’s stories, then we fail. That’s the power of narrative.”  

Atkinson talked about how stories and images can move an audience to action, citing photographs that have emerged from the Syrian refugee crisis. In those instances, Atkinson said that it is the responsibility of the journalist to answer the question, “Why should the audience care?” She also addressed the abuses to human rights that affect physical health in the world as well as in the U.S. Atkinson spoke as authority due to her experience as the past president of Physicians for Human Rights, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its “effort to eradicate landmines.”

She relayed how communication in the science fields is “desperately missing,” noting that many effectively-conveyed movements, such as the landmine removal effort, have resulted in change that has bettered human life.  

Atkinson’s final thoughts centered on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech entitled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” The speech served as King’s first explicit remarks on the Vietnam War as well as explained his view of armed conflict. Atkinson concluded with a section where King posed the question of war as a moral issue meant to stir action from his followers:

“Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.”