8. Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD

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Show Notes

As Chief Medical Officer for WebMD, Dr. John Whyte has been active in providing information to educate people during the COVID-19 pandemic by interviewing public health experts in a special video series for WebMD. In this conversation with Alliance for Aging Research President and CEO Sue Peschin, John shares some of the highlights of these interviews. He also talks about common misconceptions about COVID-19, why COVID-19 is infecting and killing more Black and Hispanic Americans, and the most common questions he gets about aging.

More about John Whyte

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hello and welcome to This is Growing Old, a Podcast from The Alliance for Aging Research. I’m Sue Peschin, President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. Today, I’m thrilled to be talking with Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD and a physician and a fantastic writer who has been communicating to the public about health issues for nearly two decades. John, thank you so much for joining us today.

John Whyte:

Absolutely. And you forgot in the intro, I’m a friend of the Alliance for Aging Research and an admirer of all of the work that you’re doing. And I’m delighted, I’m delighted, to be with you today.

Sue Peschin:

Thank you for saying that. So as Chief Medical Officer for WebMD, you’ve been active in providing information to educate people during the COVID-19 pandemic, by interviewing public health experts in a special video series for WebMD, including Dr. Fauci. What have been some of the highlights of these conversations?

John Whyte:

As of today, I’ve done over 150 interviews of some of these top experts and another hundred where I’ve been an interviewee trying to provide some guidance to the public. And really, I think there’s a couple of themes that come out. And one of them is, science isn’t black and white. I mean, often the data are gray. So what we believed in March is not the same as what we know now. And some people will look at that as, people were being untruthful or misleading and it’s not. We thought masks based on transmissibility, weren’t necessary for non-healthcare providers early on. But then we learned that they were and changed the policy. We learned much more about transmission of the virus and how infectious it is early on. People thought it was like flu but it definitely isn’t.

John Whyte:

So there’s this recognition that, especially when something is new that’s why it’s called novel coronavirus, that information changes and we need to respond to it. And then the other big issue that I’ve been focused on with some folks is the mental health pandemic that we’re having, as well as, the infectious disease pandemic. And what’s the impact on people’s mental psyche. Many people are experiencing loneliness and depression. We know that suicide is on the rise. We spoke with American Foundation for Suicide Research a couple of weeks ago. We know PTSD is a problem. People don’t know how to function, they’re just so traumatized by this. And even the aspects of, we call it COVID-19 but we’ve been referring to the COVID-15, which I can attest to.

John Whyte:

We’re all gaining weight because we’re doing Zoom all day and staying in the house. I don’t think I’ve been out since March. So what happened to us, the mental health pandemic and our emotional health, as well as, our physical health. And then really I’ve been spending a lot of time into … And even asking Dr. Fauci, how do we communicate health information? Why is there this distrust of science that seems to be persistent out there. So it’s been great. I’m at, as I said 150, I think I’ll go to at least 200 or so. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 but I’m very proud of the work of my colleagues. We have thousands of articles on COVID. We’ve reached over a billion people globally in terms of our content at WebMD and at Medscape. So it’s that type of work that is necessary when you have a pandemic that occurs once a century and we’re still learning.

Sue Peschin:

Well, I think all the work that you’ve been doing is incredibly helpful. I don’t want to gloss over, I mean, you mentioned a lot with regard to mental health issues and stress, and I think you mentioned the mental health pandemic but then there’s certainly also pandemic due to racial issues that have come to the forefront. Can you tell us a little bit about all these interviews? What have you gleaned in terms of ways to help people cope with feelings as they are coming up? And when it’s important to recognize that maybe you need a little bit of help?

John Whyte:

Well, first it’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling. At first, I think many of us felt like, “Oh, and now we have this time, let’s get things off of our bucket list. Let’s do all our home improvements.” Now’s not the time to be doing all of those things, if that’s not what you’re interested in. And it’s to acknowledge how you’re feeling. If you’re lonely, depressed, you don’t have to appear strong to people. You should admit it and acknowledge it. I talked in a blog the other day about, remember how we used to refer to people as shut-ins? I don’t hear that as much but you’d go down the street and you’d be like, “Oh, that’s Sue, she’s a shut-in, only visit at a special time.” But now we all know what that feels like, in some ways. And then hopefully, we’ll have more empathy.

John Whyte:

But it is about acknowledging how you’re feeling. It is about asking people. I was talking to Kenneth Cole who has a new campaign. It’s about how are you feeling really, right? Because sometimes it’s just this perfunctory type of, “How are you Sue?” But I’m not even listening to your response. As opposed to, “How are you feeling really?” I asked him the other day, as we talk about the challenges of mental health, sometimes friends and loved ones are fearful to ask you, how you’re doing. But what they talked about as experts is, that’s what people need. They need to know that someone is caring about them. And sometimes we have to be alert to signs and symptoms. Are people sleeping more? Are people less engaged? Some people become more depressed after FaceTime calls and others.

John Whyte:

Everyone’s not going to have the same reaction. So it is about acknowledging how you’re feeling. It is about taking a break sometimes from the infodemic that we have, as well. And then it’s about reaching out for help. And it can be more difficult in COVID where you can’t necessarily go see some providers or they’re busy but there’s a good telepsychiatry benefit and telehealth, as well. Where there’s a lot of practitioners that you can work with over the phone and over the Internet to get you where you need to be. But the first one is really to acknowledge how you’re feeling, accept it and recognize that that’s okay to feel this way and then to reach out for help.

Sue Peschin:

I think that’s great advice. It’s okay to not be okay during this time. So the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the racial health disparities that exist in the United States. Can you provide an overview of these disparities for our listeners and why is COVID-19 infecting and killing more Black and Hispanic Americans?

John Whyte:

You know, Blacks are dying at a rate of three times Caucasians in terms of COVID. And for those folks that have been studying disparities, as you and I have talked about for years, we’re not surprised by that. Infant mortality in Blacks is twice than it is for Caucasians. And that includes for affluent African-Americans. Black teens and young adults have eight times the rate of HIV infection than their Caucasian counterparts, still. And it’s been like that for 20, 30 years. The risk of diabetes is 77% higher for Blacks, 66% higher for Latinos and Hispanics. We know that hypertension is much higher in the Black community. Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to be referred for cardiac rehab. So they may have heart attacks less often but they don’t get the same type of treatment.

John Whyte:

And even when we have improvements in health, Sue, all ships rise but you know what? The disparity persists. And here we are in 2020 and you and I living in the DC Metro area, we can map out along the Metro line, life expectancy. Seven years longer, if we live on the red line where most Caucasians live versus the green line, where most African-Americans live. Seven-year life expectancy based on zip code. I like to joke, you can’t spit in Boston and not hit a teaching hospital. Yet the disparities persist there on the T, in terms of asthma rates, infant mortality, obesity. So, no one’s surprised by this and it’s not just access to the health system. It’s the broader social issues, the economic inequalities, the injustice that persists. It’s not just about access to healthcare system. But if you don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables because you don’t have a supermarket in your area or you don’t have a car or transportation to get there, that’s not helpful.

John Whyte:

You need a safe place to be able to be physically active. And when we look at COVID, we know that African-Americans and other minorities have higher hypertension rates. And there are some issues in terms of the impact of COVID on the circulatory system. We know that many of the frontline workers, the bus drivers, the sanitation crews, mail carriers are disproportionately people of color. So they’re coming into contact more with folks that increases their risk. So none of this is surprising, it’s amazingly disappointing. But hopefully this will provide us an opportunity, especially see when we’re going to have limited resources post COVID. Let’s be honest. We’re not going to be able to develop as many new hospitals and MRIs, et cetera. So how are we going to invest the limited healthcare dollars that we will have to try to eliminate if not decrease the disparity that has persisted since we’ve been taking account of things. It’s not getting better in many ways. We see it in cancer, as well. So it’s time to really acknowledge it and do things differently.

Sue Peschin:

I like it. That sounds good to us, absolutely. So what do you think are the most common misconceptions about COVID-19 and what do you want people to know?

John Whyte:

I think, early on and it still persists a little, was that it’s just like the flu. So, you know what, I don’t know anybody that dies from the flu, although tens of thousands of people die from the flu every year, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. It’s just like the flu, you’ll be fine or that it just impacts the elderly. And if you’re 30, 40 or if you’re a kid, you’re fine. That’s not true. Death is less common in 30s and 40s but it happens. Death is less common in kids but it happens. How do we protect everyone? And that’s the issue, that you may think, “Oh, I’m going to be okay because I don’t have any underlying health conditions. And if I get it, I’ll be fine. I’ll just stay home even more.” But you might infect someone else who’s at greater risk.

John Whyte:

And it’s really trying to get people to think about the importance of community and not just your own individual circumstances and that’s been a big challenge. Back to the racial disparities, early on it was, Blacks don’t get COVID and we know actually that’s completely wrong. You and I both have seen these issues of cures, they don’t exist. We have to address that many times at WebMD there is no cure for COVID.

Sue Peschin:

Right.

John Whyte:

Even recently, there has been misinformation about the number of cases that it’s only a few thousand, that’s not true. It’s hundred plus thousand, 170,000, millions of deaths. Really in some cases, hundred and thousand deaths, excuse me. Millions of cases, hundreds of thousands of deaths. But it’s a real concern in terms of addressing the misinformation out there.

Sue Peschin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. So you wrote a book on aging called, Is This Normal?: The Essential Guide to Middle Age and Beyond. What inspired you to write the book?

John Whyte:

Yeah. I have it behind my head and everywhere not too visual but if you saw it there, there’s a book by my head in the bookshelf. And I wrote it because I feel as a practicing clinician, there’s really two sorts of patients. There’s the patient that comes in for everything. They look everything up on the Internet and that’s okay. And they have a spot on their arm and they’re so concerned it’s going to be melanoma or they have a headache and they’re sure it’s going to be brain cancer or they have pain and they’re just concerned it’s going to be some hip displacement. And that that’s okay to come in but every time it’s their concern. But then there’s other patients who don’t come in often or don’t talk about their complaints, who will tell me, “Well, Dr. Whyte, that pain is just a normal part of aging.” Or that lack of sleep, “That’s just because I’m old.”

John Whyte:

And these can be signs of serious health conditions. Weight loss, that’s unintentional as we get older, is often a sign of cancer. If it’s greater than 10% of your body weight, when it’s unintentional. Sleep disorders can be signs of lots of other health conditions. So I wanted to help people understand what’s a normal part of aging, what’s expected as we get older. Our vision’s going to change. That doesn’t mean you have a disease, that’s just something called Presbyopia, that it’s harder to read versus pain every day is not a normal part of aging. So to really help provide some guidance to folks because people are more interested in taking ownership of their own care and being involved in shared decision making, which I support. So it’s important to know what’s a normal part of aging, that you don’t need to get too worried about. And what’s potentially a sign of something more serious.

Sue Peschin:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well so in the book, you answer a lot of common questions about aging and you ran out a couple of them. But what are the most common questions that you receive?

John Whyte:

I did mention about sleep. So people ask a lot about sleep. They usually ask about weight gain. Everyone wants to think that they’re hypothyroid is causing their weight gain, but they’re not. They don’t usually ask about weight loss. They usually ask about weight gain. And that is an aspect of aging because our basal metabolic rate slows down. Honestly, people ask a lot about urination and pooping. I have young kids, so I can say that. So they want to know, “Is it normal to get up at night and have to urinate?” And we actually have good data on that. Especially for men but for women, as well. As long as you don’t get up more than twice a night. If you get up more than twice a night, that could be a sign of some issues and you don’t have to make a bowel movement every day.

John Whyte:

I find, as people get older, they become more focused on making bowel movements, actually a bowel … Constipation isn’t considered constipation, unless it’s more than three days without a bowel movement. People ask a lot about vision and hearing. And that makes sense because you’re going to see changes in your vision and hearing and they want to make sure that they’re not becoming blind. It’s usually their spouse or significant other that brings them in with hearing issues because nobody wants to admit they have a hearing issue because they often view that as a sign of disability. So those I have found over the years. Still seeing patients, are those key questions that they don’t always ask but they really do want to know the answer to.

Sue Peschin:

All right. So now I have a fun question. This is one of our favorite questions. Which is, when you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

John Whyte:

Honestly, it’s how I imagined now that I’m getting older, that I’d have a family and kids that, I would be working and having an impact on others. I joke with my wife. I’ve always seen myself as working a very long time. Like I joke, I’ll be a Supreme Court Justice working in my eighties because that’s what I enjoy. Whereas I know others, want to retire at 55 and travel the world. But it really is what I expected to be. A focus on family as opposed to oneself and really involved in a career that I enjoy and that I feel is impactful but yet I also feel it doesn’t have a time limit in terms of that … I never thought of myself as, “Oh, I just want to work till I’m 65.” I just look at it as, “I’m going to keep working as long as I enjoy it.” So the aging process is what I expected. You do have some limitations in terms of what you can do. In terms of the amount of time that you might be active in sports. But it’s all changes and I expected that and I’ve embraced it.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great. Well, what do you enjoy most about it though, that’s different maybe from when you were young? Have you let go of certain things? Do you feel like attitudes have changed at all?

John Whyte:

I do think attitudes change. I think one, as you get older, it depends for everyone but lots of times you develop more financial stability. So growing up, going to medical school, resident, it’s always you have large loans, you’re trying to manage everything. So you finally get to a point where you have some financial security, then you have kids, bills and things like that. But I think there’s been a recognition of what’s really important. Like things don’t bother me as much anymore. Sometimes when I get certain emails, it annoys me, I’m going to fire off a missive, right now.

Sue Peschin:

Right.

John Whyte:

It’s good to think about it and maybe wait a day or at least wait a few hours. Whereas before, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t need to address it, right now. I think I’ve appreciated that, I really enjoy family time. Before kids, I’m not sure I would have said, “Oh, you know …” To really appreciate how it enriches … To have a spouse that you can share things with.

John Whyte:

So for me, those are the things that I really have enjoyed and somewhat the discretion to focus on the things that you want to do, instead of things that you have to do. That’s been a big change, as well. A lot of people it’s a big change because you’re focused on yourself for so long. And then you really make that shift. It’s almost like a click in some ways, where really you’re focused on others. And I really have my mother and my father to thank for that because they were always so focused on their family. And you mentioned in the first book … I dedicated the first book to my mother saying that, “I hope we all age as gracefully as she did.” And just was always very supportive and that’s what I’m trying to do with my children, as well.

Sue Peschin:

That’s awesome, that’s great. Yeah. I was just thinking about when you said you’ve just become more discerning. I don’t know if you’ve caught it yet but Jerry Seinfeld did a special on Netflix. He is 65 now and he was talking about how … At first he said, “I want to let you all get over the shock value of hearing that first.” And then he talked about how he loves being in his sixties because now when he doesn’t feel like doing something, he just says, “No. “You want to help me move this piece of furniture?”. “No.” And then he said, “And when you get to your seventies, all you need to do as a wave.” “Do you want to go to the flea market?” “And it’s just a wave, no.” So John, thank you so much for being on our show today. It’s really been wonderful talking to you.

John Whyte:

Absolutely. And thanks for all you’re doing to raise awareness of healthy aging, doing research, as to how do we understand aging? It’s really a great honor for me to work with all of you.

Sue Peschin:

Thank you. Us, too. Right back at you.

John Whyte:

Thank you.

Sue Peschin:

All right. Well, thanks for this week’s episode. We encourage you to follow The Alliance on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Please visit us at agingresearch.org to learn more about age related conditions, diseases and issues that impact the health of older Americans. And please subscribe now and rate us on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify or anywhere else you listen. Thanks so much and have a great day.