Coma Author-Physician on His New Medical Thriller, Cell

Eric Topol Talks Medicine and Murder With Best-Selling Author Robin Cook

; Robin Cook, MD


February 03, 2014

In This Article

A New Novel: Cell

Dr. Topol: You had immense success with this movie and book, and you then wrote more than 30 books. Now you have a new book coming out, which brought us together, called Cell. Can you comment on that? It's a fascinating book. In fact, I couldn't put it down. It really captures this whole smartphone, mobile health era in a way that is quite extraordinary. Maybe you could just give the folks a little synopsis to pique their interest in the book.

Dr. Cook: To emphasize the point I was making before, it really is a fun book to read, and even though the issue itself is very serious, in that medicine is about to undergo an enormous change, to me it's really surprising how few people are anticipating that change, even in our own profession. In the medical profession itself, I have this sense that people really don't know what's coming, and they're still doing the same things that they shouldn't have done in the past.

For instance, it's very difficult to talk to your doctor. I can't say this of all doctors, but most doctors have erected this ability to shield themselves, so that whenever you call the office you always get the receptionist or you're lucky to get the nurse. The doctor, well, he's very busy. Doctors are not making themselves available.

Dr. Topol: Now all of a sudden you've got this smartphone and you pick your doctor avatar.

Dr. Cook: That's right, but even doctors today don't realize that most people are no longer trying to call their doctor. They're going on the Internet. They're going on the Internet or on social media. This is what I noticed, and that was really the origin of Cell. The other thing is that the whole rationale for our healthcare system is supposed to be to have lots of primary care doctors, a few other specialists, and a few -- maybe even just 1 or 2 -- superspecialists. That's supposed to be our pyramid, but our pyramid is upside down. We have all these specialists and no primary care physicians, and it's never been solved. And suddenly, when I put all these things together, I realized that the solution to the primary care physician is going to be the smartphone, because it's not just an app to monitor your blood pressure. And it's not just an app to take a picture of your ear so that the doctor can look at it. The cell phone can do all of these things together, and why not? We have Siri. Why not take it a step beyond? Suddenly I realized: We're looking for primary care physicians; we're looking to lower costs; we want to incorporate genomics. Nanotechnology is coming down the line. It is advancing so rapidly, particularly with wireless sensors, etc., that you have the convergence of all of these things. I woke up in the middle of the night and said, "The cell phone is going to be the doctor."

Then I said, "All right, now how do I make this entertaining? How do I get the general person [to read it]?"

Dr. Topol: You kind of did that. The insurance company owns this smartphone entity that has the avatars, and people get killed, and it kind of gets a little wild there, doesn't it?

Dr. Cook: Well, you have to do that. In writing bestsellers, you have to use the two-by-four on the donkey. You have to really engage people, and you have to figure that we're all more similar than we are different, especially when it comes to entertainment. We like to be scared a little bit. We like to have a certain amount of mystery. We like to like the person who's the main character. He or she can be a little bit complicated, but we like to like them in general.

These are all the pieces that I learned after my first book was not a success. My second book, Coma, sold 11 million copies. What's the difference? The difference is that when you pick up Coma, you're drawn into it. You know that idea of reading just one chapter before you turn out the light? Well, the chapter ends in such a way that you have to go to the next chapter.

Dr. Topol: You can't turn the light out.

Dr. Cook: You can't turn the light out. All sorts of little tricks like that. I read a whole bunch of bestsellers after my first book, and I can confess that prior to that I had never read a bestseller.

Dr. Topol: You picked up the key themes and patterns and it really helped you. I take it that even though you're writing a book to catch the interest of your readers, and people [in the book] are getting killed, you're not really so down on this technology, right?

Dr. Cook: No, not at all. I see it as the future, and in a certain sense it embarrasses me. I'm a physician. I loved becoming a doctor. If I had to do it over again I'd still become a doctor.


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