Dr. Anthony Alessi is a clinical professor of neurology and orthopaedics at UConn Health and is the director of the UConn NeuroSport Program. He also serves as a neurologic consultant to many athletic organizations, including the UConn Division of Athletics and the New York Yankees.
He was profiled in UConn Magazine in the spring of 2019.
Dr. Alessi is the host of “Healthy Rounds,” a weekly medical radio program that airs on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 in Hartford on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to noon. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the show has gone to a daily format from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
He began working with the media in 2006 with a regular column for the Norwich Bulletin, when he was on staff at Backus Hospital. Alessi started to do radio work in southeastern Connecticut and his show at WTIC has been on the air since 2007.
UConn Today caught up with Dr. Alessi and got his thoughts on the coronavirus and what it’s like to be a medical professional in the media.
How has your life changed since the outbreak of the coronavirus?
Well, I am supposed to be at spring training with the New York Yankees this month, but the night before we were supposed to leave, we decided not to go. Instead, I gave a talk to the Professional Baseball Athletics Trainers Society and I gave it entirely on Zoom. So the athletic trainers who were already in Florida, they could see me, they could see my slides and I could see them. The talk went really well.
I saw patients at UConn and did my regular show on WTIC (on March 14). The response was dramatic in the sense that there were so many good calls on the coronavirus. The management of WTIC got in touch with me on Monday (March 16) at a quarter ‘til eleven and said “can be you here to do a show from noon until 3 p.m.?” I foolishly said yes, drove over there and had to scramble a bit and used my connections with the UConn Health Department of Communications to get guests. We answered questions from local people who had good questions. We did the same thing the next day and then they moved me to 6 p.m. I’ve had guests on from all the hospitals and on Friday (March 20) Dr. Andy Agwunobi (UConn Health CEO) was gracious enough to come on.
How do you think Connecticut is performing with the coronavirus outbreak?
The show has given me some real insight into the state of Connecticut and what we are doing and how far we are getting. And you know, I feel pretty good about what we are doing here. There’s this national view when you turn on CNN or Fox and you hear about all the disasters, lockdown, martial law, things like that. For the most part, in talking to folks, we are doing everything right here in Connecticut so far. OK, we were late getting the test, but that’s because they weren’t available to us. Now testing sites are up.
The thing I was concerned about was, are the hospitals all speaking to each other? These people all know each other, and for the most part, respect each other, but they are quote-unquote competitors in a market. But, the state of Connecticut knows how many ventilators are available, where they are, how ready they are, who has supplies, who doesn’t have supplies. I think we are ready if the wave hits, pretty much when it hits. Connecticut is going to be ready as opposed to some of the states, and that is what we are trying to let people know. We are trying to have experts come on and tell us what we should be doing now everyday as citizens of Connecticut.
What kind of prep work do you do for the show?
The show goes really fast when you are on the air and you roll right through it. It’s really the prep that makes it go smoothly, so I am constantly either reading or just trying to find out what the trending topics are in the field of health. I am going through things like the New England Journal of Medicine and other specialty journals, but also in the newspaper every day, because that’s where you are going to see what people want to know about. You have to have your hands in two pots, what’s going on popularly and what’s going on in the scientific community, in order to prepare for a show like mine. The real challenge is getting it down to an understandable level, like you would explain to a patient the best you can. That’s what the people want.
How do you keep politics out of medical coverage?
When you are a medical professional, that is your lane, not the politics of it. We are not here to criticize people or get into what the Democrats are doing or what the Republicans are saying. What we need to do is filter through things and get good messaging out. Clearly, there is a political bent to this. The interesting person up there is Dr. Anthony Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease]. Dr. Fauci is someone who is well known to everyone in the medical community. He’s been doing this now for 50 years, so he is the man and we’ve known that since his work with HIV and even before that. His research and his work has been on the front lines. What is interesting is that the politicians invariably call him Tony or Anthony and yet the doctors always refer to him as Dr. Fauci, that is how much respect we have for him, and I have been saying for the past few weeks, he is the guy to listen to. There are blustery people who want to get wrapped up in politics and you have to blow that off, and that is what we do on our show. I say that right from the beginning. We are here to give factual medical information and if we have callers that want to get their political view out, we unfortunately have to dismiss them.
How should people use the medical advice they get in the media?
I am glad you brought that up. So, a lot of times I don’t really have the answers, but I know where to get the answers. We have an email (email@example.com) and I am happy to take people’s emails for any medical question. If I don’t know the answer, I know an expert who can get you an answer, whether it be on the air or not. Sometimes, people bring up such a great topic, I get somebody on the air to talk about it. But, I always tell people to bring information that they hear from me or someone I find back to their physician and work through it that way.
Is telemedicine the wave of the future?
There are some good things coming out of this struggle. People are going to be more attuned to how use telemedicine and to avoid having to travel into the office. I mean that especially for the elderly, who have a hard time getting out and may have to use a family member to give up a day of work to bring them to the office, or maybe they are struggling with mobility issues. I am talking about follow-up visits, where we talk to the patients and find out how they are doing.
UConn was really on the cutting edge of it around here in terms of using it fairly regularly. I went to UConn with the idea that we have to start to do more telemedicine three years ago, specifically in my practice with athletes. Many athletes fly in to see me and we do extensive workups with them in both Storrs and Farmington. But, I wanted to do follow up visits with these athletes with video telemedicine, real telemedicine, and not a lot of people were doing it at the time. We were able to set up a HIPPA secure channel and log right into a training room with the athletes and an athletic trainer there on site to assist me.
What is your advice to people right now?
Social distancing. It is so key right now. It breaks my heart the fact that I haven’t seen my grandchildren in weeks, but I know that it’s the right thing to do. We have to make sure we are cleaning ourselves, cleaning surfaces, washing our hands. You have to assume everyone you encounter has it and if you assume that you will take adequate precautions. But don’t panic, and stay focused. By staying focused, I mean everybody has to plan their day. Where are they going, what are they going to do, whom they may encounter. You need to plan that out carefully, but not panic, because if we all pull it together we are going to be fine here in Connecticut.