Dr Mercy Korir talks to Sharon Barang’a about why she left clinical practice to become a health journalist
Growing up in Kapsoit, in rural Kericho County in Kenya, Mercy Korir always wanted to be a doctor. She always topped her class, and top performers were encouraged to pursue medicine. Her headteacher – Mr Gathii – gifted her Think Big and Gifted Hands by Ben Carson, and this further cemented the idea of pursuing medicine after school.
After secondary school, she joined the University of Nairobi for a degree in medicine and surgery. In 2011, she accomplished her childhood dream and added a title she had desired for years. She was now Dr Mercy Korir and was posted to a hospital in Machakos, 65 kilometres from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, as an intern.
“I enjoyed working as a medical intern 95 per cent of the time, but I also had low moments, such as when a patient dies. It never really leaves your mind as you think about if there is more you could have done to save the life of the patient. It weighs heavily on the minds of doctors,” she said.
The other challenge was inadequate infrastructure in public hospitals.
“It was demoralising to medics who want to do more for their patients, but they don’t have the resources. I came face to face with the difficulties health workers go through and wondered if I wanted to be a doctor for the rest of my life,” she said.
The same year that Dr Korir started her internship, the doctors union – the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union – called for a major strike.
After completing her internship in April 2013, she contemplated enrolling for a post-graduate specialisation in medicine but decided to study communications instead.
“I decided to study communications to reach the masses with health information, as opposed to sitting in a clinic dealing with a limited number of people. I wanted to reach a lot of people,” she said.
After completing her Master’s in Communications, she joined the Standard Group as an intern at their TV station, KTN, because she was keen on telling health stories to the masses and using journalism to address some of the issues that doctors face.
At KTN, she grew from intern to health reporter and now health and science editor, overseeing the company’s health content on all their platforms.
“Before I became a health journalist, I thought some of the stories in the press were scandalous, misinformed or misreported. There was no depth in the reporting, but now journalists are probing more to get the right information before it is published,” said Dr Korir.
Dr Korir hasn’t found any other medical journalist in Sub-Saharan Africa, so she looks up to CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta.
“I always thought, if a neurosurgeon can do this, I can also do it. I also admire how talk show host Oprah works and values her audiences. She has never missed a show and always puts her audience first. This is what I endeavour to do in my career – prioritising my audience and putting their interests first.”
Amidst the misinformation that has thrived during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Korir uses social media to break down issues on health and to correct misinformation. Her biggest challenge has been breaking down medical concepts to make them suitable for newspaper reading.
“When I started out my scripts were too technical and complex. I am still working on simplifying and breaking down issues for anyone to understand. I am also teaching myself not to write headlines the way I would if I was writing for a medical journal,” she told AWiM News.
In 2020, Dr Korir received the Uzalendo Award, the Kenyan presidential order of service for her contribution to reporting on COVID-19. It was a pleasant surprise. She is also a fellow at the International Center for Journalists.
“I apply for fellowships because they add value to my career as a journalist; they come with mentors who guide you in developing stories in specific subjects. However, I do not apply for awards because I find them subjective. I do not believe one story can define my whole journey in journalism. I wish organisers of awards would look at a journalist’s track record and their consistency in reporting on a specific subject instead,” she said.
Dr Korir doesn’t regret trading her stethoscope for the microphone. She gets the same satisfaction from working as a journalist. The only difference, she says, is that in medicine, the impact is dramatic and immediate – like when you deliver a baby through Caesarean section and hand over the baby to its mother. In journalism, on the other hand, the impact takes longer to be felt but is powerful.
“If I work on a two-minute story and two million people watch it, it might be more impactful because in the audience might be policymakers, legislators or donors, leading to impact on a bigger scale. Compare that to being a doctor who might attend to 40 people in a day with issues specific to them, which is still important work,” she said.
Dr Korir, who describes herself as ambitious, bold and shy, advises journalists to do the thing that makes them happy, not because they have been told to do it.
“Be ready to put in time and effort in your work, there are no shortcuts and at times it takes blood and sweat to get where you want to be. Remember, it is all about the people, if I wanted money I would be a practising doctor but I chose to be of service to God through the microphone. Also, take criticism positively because in this industry you are only good as your last story.”
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