Sawbones Hosts Demystify Medicine, One Episode at a Time

Jay Lankau

Disclosures

October 15, 2021

Working in medicine often means recounting medical facts galore to your spouse, family, and anyone nearby. But what if this was something you did not just for your partner, but for thousands of listeners each week, and even at live shows (back when those were still a thing)? Family medicine physician and assistant professor Sydnee McElroy, MD, co-hosts the podcast Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine with her husband, podcaster, comedian, and journalist Justin McElroy. The podcast was first released in 2013 and has over 300 episodes, as well as a book originally published in 2018 and updated for 2020 titled The Sawbones Book: The Hilarious, Horrifying Road to Modern Medicine.

The podcast explores the history of medical treatments, diagnoses, and more. Recent episodes have tackled Havana syndrome, thalidomide, and Herbalife.

Medscape recently spoke with the McElroys about the inception of Sawbones, what it's like to have a podcast with your partner, and how to avoid cynicism as a healthcare professional.

How did you two lovebirds meet?

Justin McElroy: Our families grew up doing community theater together.

Sydnee McElroy: We've known each other since we were 12. We were both in a production of The Wizard of Oz. You were Lord Growlie, and I was Girl of Oz #3.

Justin McElroy: Right, both of us were mainstay Wizard of Oz actors. We dated briefly when we were very young, and then we broke up because, well, nobody knows.

Sydnee McElroy: I know. We broke up because Justin went away to church camp and didn't tell me.

Justin McElroy: That's fair. 

Sydnee McElroy: And he didn't return my phone calls for a week. My heart was broken.

Justin McElroy: We reconnected in college and started dating then, and that was, I guess, 15 years ago?

Sydnee McElroy: We've been married for 15 years, but we were together 2 years before that, so 17 years ago.

Why did you start Sawbones? When did that happen in the timeline of your relationship? 

Sydnee McElroy: Justin was doing podcasting first with My Brother, My Brother, and Me [an advice podcast with his two brothers], and he really enjoyed it. We started talking about how we should do a podcast too, for fun. Initially, we started a TV review podcast. Honestly, we were both becoming busier and busier and didn't have the time to watch TV anymore. We discussed how we should do a podcast that draws on stuff we know, and that's where the medical history topic came from. It was an area of interest, and a subject I had some expertise in. We thought that it might be worthwhile, and people love trivia. Plus, Justin is funny.

Justin McElroy: Thanks.

Sydnee McElroy: We thought it would be a cool combo — I tell the stories and Justin makes the jokes.

What is it like to have a podcast with your partner?

Justin McElroy: It's a fun, creative environment to work in because it's different from other shows I've worked on. In My Brothers, I'm brutally honest. I'd say the dynamic is different with me and Syd because there's a respect that extends beyond the creative aspect of it. I want to support the stuff that she's doing and at the same time, I know I can't do what she does. I have to figure out the areas where to lean into my comedic instincts but also be able to back up and just listen to what Syd is saying.

What does research for an episode typically look like?

Sydnee McElroy: I usually turn to our listener emails first. Sometimes, within the span of a few days, I'll get 15 emails requesting one specific topic. When that type of thing rises to the surface and that many people are paying attention to it, it feels important to address — what claims are being made, and why are they not true? And where does it come from? Because it always comes from a historical precedent. Sometimes there won't be an obvious subject, so I look at something I encountered that day. I see a patient with a certain condition, and it'll hit me: We never talked about that. And I'll wonder, how did we figure that out, or why do we use that treatment for it?

How has Sawbones changed over the years?

Sydnee McElroy: The general structure is fairly similar to the start. I find something from history that I think will make a good story based on my own research and interest. I have notes I work off of, and Justin doesn't know what we're gonna do each week. We don't refine it too much, it's just kind of me telling the story and Justin telling jokes. The only real change to that format has been made over the past 5 years.

We've really seen in the past couple of years how a lack of general health and scientific understanding can affect us all.

It became evident to me that I had a platform to talk about science in a way that was entertaining and inviting, but also honest and evidence-based. I think that it is becoming increasingly important that if you have a platform and audience and the ability to do so, you talk about science in a way so that people gain science literacy. We've really seen in the past couple of years how a lack of general health and scientific understanding can affect us all. We started to do topics that were timelier. Now, there's a lot of "get your flu shot" talks on our show, and even more "get your COVID vaccine" talks.

Has there ever been a story you didn't want to put on the podcast? Was there anything too grim?

Sydnee McElroy: It's funny because a few years ago I would have said that we don't do those kinds of stories. We started as a comedy podcast, and Justin's job is to make jokes. But with certain stories in medical history, there are no jokes. It's not funny and it shouldn't be funny. 

We eventually found that there is a way to tell these stories without comedy that is still authentic and engaging. They are important, and ignoring them is very loud after a while. The fact that you are ignoring certain stories becomes just as much of a statement as telling them.

We found ways to tell serious stories and approach them in the appropriate manner with respect. In those episodes, I talk a lot more and Justin talks a lot less. But our listeners appreciate that. It didn't alienate people. We are always really clear in our descriptions if we're going to be talking about intense or serious subjects, and if you're a listener who is just coming here for laughs, maybe this isn't what you want today. It took us a while to figure out how to do that in a way that was respectful of both history and our audience. When it really became important was last summer, talking about the history of racism in medicine. That was when we really figured out how to do that on our show.

How do you avoid becoming cynical in today's climate and when discussing medical history?

Justin McElroy: Part of it is understanding how cyclical this all is. Like Syd was saying, anti-science is not a new thing. I don't think people were anticipating the pushback against the prevention [of COVID-19], but I feel like we saw that coming a mile away because we've learned about it in Sawbones. We've also seen people who have used the information from Sawbones to convince someone in their life to get vaccinated or to take masking seriously.

Sydnee McElroy: I would say that it's something that not just me, but every healthcare professional, is fighting and working on every day right now. We do get lots of emails from our listeners. Pre-pandemic, they would say things like, "Because of something you said in an episode, I finally got my flu shot, or went and saw a primary care doctor so I could get this problem addressed, and I wasn't so scared to interact with the medical system because you helped demystify it and made it seem more accessible to me." 

Since the pandemic, I get emails daily from people who have armed themselves with the information we provided and then used that information to convince someone they care about to get the vaccine. That sort of thing is really hopeful to me — to know that every little bit does make a difference. Receiving that feedback towards the show reminds me that it does matter, it does count, and you can't give up because all of this stuff happens step by step, person by person. Not in a giant way, but that's how you eventually cause shift and change. So that helps.

Want to hear more Sawbones? Listen to the latest episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever else you get your podcasts.

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