The Online Medicine Man

Dr. George Lundberg
Dr. George Lundberg

From the time he was six years old, UA alumnus George Lundberg knew he wanted to be a doctor.

“I was a sickly child,” Lundberg recalled of his upbringing in Silverhill, Alabama. “I had ordinary childhood illnesses—a lot of sore throats and a lot of bronchitis—and there was a kindly old family doctor, a general practitioner in our part of Alabama who used to do house calls. He was very kind, and I used to feel better after his visits, so I thought ‘maybe one day I’d like to be like that.’ It was a career path for me almost from the beginning.”

Lundberg is now 84 years old and has served full-time in the medical profession for roughly 60 years. Of the many things he’s accomplished, he says the highest points of his career include working as the editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association for 17 years as well as being elected to the National Academy of Medicine.
“But the highest of the high points is continuing to work and practice after all these years,” Lundberg said. “That’s the highest point by far—my staying power.”

Currently Lundberg lives in California and has six part-time jobs to his name. Primarily, he works as the chief medical officer and editor in chief of CollabRx, a company that matches the newest medical information about cancer with the best possible treatments, drugs, and clinical trials currently available. He is also an executive adviser for Cureus, the only online medical journal that provides peer review before and after publication; he is a consulting professor of pathology and health research and policy at Stanford; he is the president and chair of the Lundberg Institute; he is a member of the Cancer Commons Medical Advisory Board; he is the editor in chief of the Curious Dr. George Blog; and, as the editor at large, he writes a bimonthly column for Medscape.

“I’m motivated by what’s interesting,” Lundberg said. “I like to be able to wake up every day—and be alive number one—but also have something interesting to do with the good fortune that it might even be important for someone else to learn from.”

Despite Lundberg’s overwhelmingly successful career, however, getting into medical school was not an easy feat.

Lundberg was only 15 when he graduated from Robertsdale High School in Baldwin County, and wanting to protect and continue to nurture him until he was a bit older, his parents sent him to a private junior college in Chicago—now known as North Park University.

“It was a private school, so it was expensive,” Lundberg recalls of his time in the city. “And my parents had very little money because my father was a private music teacher and my mother was an elementary school teacher. Pay for folks like that in the 1940s in Alabama was extremely low, so we pretty much ran out of money after those two years.”

Lundberg returned home and applied to The University of Alabama, where he was accepted and spent the next two years earning his chemistry degree, playing the clarinet in the Million Dollar Band, and cheering on the football program he’d loved since grammar school.

In his second year at UA, he preemptively applied to medical school, as was customary in the early ‘50s, but he was rejected by each of the schools to which he applied both in 1951 and again in 1952. Having finished his bachelor’s degree and still unable to pursue his career as a doctor, Lundberg returned to UA to work on a graduate degree in biochemistry.
Luckily, in just a few months, the Medical College of Alabama in Birmingham reached out to Lundberg for an interview and he was finally accepted into medical school. He dropped out of UA so that he could save up the necessary funds, and fortuitously received a job offer at the newly built Druid City Hospital on University Boulevard as a clinical chemist, working alongside Dr. James Simon Peter Beck, the hospital’s pathologist.

“My interest in pathology began at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa,” Lundberg said. “Beck befriended me and started to teach me about pathology when I was a med tech. He invited me to come and watch an autopsy, which I did many times, and I learned to love the field.

“In 1953, the most compelling thing about pathology was the autopsy, which served then and continues to serve now, as the ultimate quality control check on the practice of medicine. When the doctors would come to the autopsy room, they could find out what was really going on when the patient died—far beyond what the doctor thought was happening—and I thought this was an amazingly important thing.”

During his fourth year of medical school, Lundberg voluntarily enlisted in the Army and spent the next 11 years training in and then practicing pathology as a second lieutenant and then lieutenant colonel.

“Roughly one quarter of my professional life since I graduated medical school has been in government service; roughly one quarter has been in full-time academia, one quarter has been in non-profit association work; and one quarter has been in for-profit entrepreneurial work,” Lundberg said. “I didn’t like the Vietnam War at all, and though the Army treated me very well, I had three little kids, and they kept making me move around, so I chose to leave the Army and took a job at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1967.”

For 20 years, Lundberg practiced pathology in hospitals, in academia, and in the military; he became a professor and chair at the University of California—Davis; but then, in 1982, he received an offer that propelled him in a new direction—one that would lead him to becoming an online medical pioneer.

“As an academic, I had to write and publish papers or I couldn’t get appointed and promoted. I also got invited to join some editorial boards of journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association.”

Lundberg sat on JAMA’s editorial board starting in 1974 and even started his own column for the journal. By 1981, however, the American Medical Association wanted a new editor in chief, and Lundberg was their prime target.

Executives of the AMA, including James Sammons, met with Lundberg in LA for an interview and talked to him about the journal’s international initiatives in Japan and France. They told him he wouldn’t just be overseeing one journal; he would have the capacity to oversee dozens of medical journals the world over.

“Sammons was able to convince me that if I took the job as the editor of JAMA, I could make it the most important job in medical education in the world,” Lundberg said. “To me this was a medical missionary activity—all this international publishing. I loved it because it gave us the opportunity to educate so many doctors from all over the world.”

By the time Lundberg left JAMA in 1999, he’d helped to run and create 21 international editions in 13 languages—covering everywhere from Moscow to Buenos Aires.

He also created the concept of “theme issues” for the journal, in which the editorial team selected relevant papers based on topics that were of particular interest to his readers. Such issues covered topics like alternative medicine, Hispanic or African American health, guns, violence, alcohol, and tobacco.

“I think we published eight or nine tobacco-themed issues over the years, and those publications are credited with being central to the movement of stopping tobacco smoking for most of America,” Lundberg said. “That was hugely important.”

By and large Lundberg was interested in getting medical information into the hands of everyday people—in addition to their doctors. The mission statement of JAMA during his tenure was “to promote the science and art of medicine and the betterment of the public health.”

As part of that initiative, Lundberg created a strong relationship with the national media. At the time, the public received their medical education largely through health columns and news reports.

“We wanted to educate the public about its health before the internet by working with the public media,” Lundberg said of the days before the internet. “We cultivated relationships with the Times, the Post, the Tribune, and the Wall Street Journal as well as ABC, CBS, and CNN. We also created courses to teach medical reporters how to write better articles, and we ran two-day science reporters conferences with Johns Hopkins, Duke, and UCLA to teach medical reporters about how to write articles better.

“We would cultivate a relationship with the public media so that the reporters for radio, television, newspaper, and magazines would amplify what we published in JAMA and interpret it in English that was easier to be understood for a person who hadn’t been to medical school.”

By the time the internet had made a public impression in the early 1990s, the groundwork for Lundberg and JAMA to fully democratize medical information was already underway, and in 1995 JAMA launched its first website.

“We put JAMA articles up, beginning in 1995 and made them free of charge to the world—inventing open access conceptually,” Lundberg said. “The internet changed the patient-physician relationship by giving patients the opportunity to take charge of their health and to do so as informed consumers.”

Of course, there was resistance to the legitimacy of information found on the internet back in 1995, as there is today, but Lundberg says that the difference between hard copies and electronic versions is simply a matter of quantity.

“When I started teaching about internet medicine back in 1997, it was often said by critics, ‘I would never trust anything I read on the internet. There’s so much junk there,’ and my answer always was, ‘I would never trust anything I read on paper. There is so much junk there.’ It’s the same thing. It’s just easier to get at the junk, and it’s easier to get at the best stuff.”

Lundberg’s advice for getting the most out of what internet medicine has to offer is finding brand-name sites whose reputation you trust. He recommends Medscape Reference for those willing to tackle a few hard words or WebMD and Everyday Health for those seeking simpler language.

“You can go to Google, Yahoo, or Bing and type in your questions—and you’ll get a lot of good information. It may even be exactly what you want, but the struggle with search engines is that you might not be able to tailor the question right. That’s usually the hardest thing for the patient—figuring out how to ask the question in a way that the answer that comes back from the vast, vast world of information is actually helpful.”

Following Lundberg’s 17 year stint at JAMA, he went on to work at Medscape and then Medpage Today. He is invested in cutting-edge medicine and getting access for that medical information to doctors as well as everyday people, which is why he continues to work six jobs well into his mid-80s.

“I’m online the majority of most days,” Lundberg said. “Because the internet is what it is, I work wherever I am.” ■