The next Sanjay Gupta?
UIC Nursing alum is behind 'Ask the NP' social media series
James Q. Simmons, DNP, MS ’14, RN, doesn’t see why a nurse shouldn’t be the next chief medical correspondent for CNN when Sanjay Gupta leaves the job.
In fact, he doesn’t see why it couldn’t be him.
“I feel very strongly about the need for more nurses, particularly nurses of color and queer nurses, having our voices in the media,” he says.
The proudly Black, queer and doctorally prepared nurse shares healthcare information on radio, TV and in lively, humor-filled videos on social media. In his “Ask the NP” series (@AskTheNP), he refers to his followers as “the family” or “the fam” and answers questions about topics such as risk of strokes with COVID-19, going to the ER for back pain, and the symptoms of Lyme disease.
His audience has now grown to more than 60,000 across social media platforms. Simmons creates videos with partner healthcare organizations, contributes to a coronavirus segment on a Los Angeles-area CBS affiliate, and guest hosts a daily radio show on Channel Q called “Drop the Subject,” which is broadcast in 36 markets and on Radio.com. He also works as a hospitalist at UCLA Health.
Simmons spoke to UIC Nursing about getting his start in nursing at UIC, why the country needs to keep talking about racial health disparities, and his plans for a nurse-forward media empire.
Q: You had a degree in broadcast journalism and were on the corporate marketing fast-track when you decided to switch careers. What drew you to nursing?
The entire time that I had this great PR and marketing career, I could not get this voice out of my head that I want to be a nurse. My mom was a pediatric ICU nurse, and I remember her stories from work. I knew it was something I wanted to do even when I was a kid.
But growing up biracial and a little bit more feminine than the other boys in the 80s and 90s in Nebraska, you don’t tell people you want to be a nurse. There was already a lot of stigma about men in nursing and in a conservative place like Nebraska – which, at the time, was certainly less accepting of boys who were a little bit different – I wasn’t trying to make my life harder than it already was by saying that I wanted to be a nurse.
Fast forward to age 30, I can’t get it out of my brain. I’m very much one of those people that does not want to be on my deathbed looking back and saying, ‘what if?’
Q: Why did you choose UIC for your master’s degree? [Ed. Note: At the time Simmons completed the MS/Graduate-Entry Program, which enabled career-changers to earn a master’s degree and prepare for certification as an NP.]
The first thing that really jumped out to me about UIC’s nursing program was the emphasis on social justice initiatives, public health, and how nursing can influence and improve health inequities based on race, social economic status and sexual and gender identity.
Now we have this great awakening in our larger collective conscious as a country about the racial injustices in our healthcare system, but UIC was talking about that even in my information session in 2010. That was very, very attractive to me at the time.
Q: Why did you decide to start the ‘Ask the NP’ series?
I find it incredibly contradictory that for 18 years in a row, [nurses] are voted the most trusted profession in America, yet we’re not well represented when you look at people who are medical contributors on news programs, podcasts, documentaries or on television. You see very, very few nurses. We’re not being used to help educate America.
I had this broadcast journalism degree, experience in media, and now this new career as an NP. I thought, what better way to use my knowledge to help educate the public and do some good on social media then start my own channel?
Q: The tagline for “Ask the NP” is: Everything you’re too scared to ask your MD. Why?
It’s not because I don’t like MDs. We need physicians. They are an integral part of the healthcare team, but “white coat syndrome” is a real thing. Mistrust of the medical institution, particularly doctors, by people of color, people who are LGBTQ , and other marginalized individuals is very real, and it’s rooted in some understandable reasons.
Instead, what people end up doing is Googling their symptoms, or asking a friend of a friend. Some of the information on the internet is very good and high quality. A lot of information on the internet is really poor and dangerous.
I felt it sort of my responsibility, if you will, to merge my media background with my healthcare knowledge to translate the most evidence-based, most practical, most important health information for people using social media
Q: Your videos have a conversational, engaging style. How do you record them?
It’s just me, an iPhone and a tripod. I learned through trial and error how to make the recordings look great and not be too much work. Audiences would much rather you be real and raw and relatable then have something overly produced.
Q: You also tackle serious and tough subjects and addressed the fact that African Americans are at higher risk of contracting and dying of COVID-19. What do you want people to know about this?
Fatigue about COVID-19 is very real. As healthcare providers, we have to talk about the fatigue of patients and the public in talking about this. At the same time, we also have to continue to educate about the fact that this disease, like many diseases, has disproportionately impacted communities of color, specifically the Black community, and how deeply ingrained, systemic racism in healthcare is perpetuating this issue. Now is not the time to shy away from that.
Q: You recently got your DNP. What do you hope to do next?
Now as Dr. James Q. Simmons, nurse practitioner, my voice is heard in more than 36 markets across the country and on the Radio.com app every day, broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people. I do feel like that’s one of the larger steps forward, in terms of having a nurse whose voice is being heard.
I have much larger aspirations for it, I feel like there’s an opportunity for nurses to be featured and paid, just like physicians, as medical experts on the largest of platforms, as well as a nurse-led streaming series that features how nurses can influence many aspects of people’s lives. We’re going to build the empire.
Q: What does the ‘Q’ in James Q. Simmons stand for?
Quincy. It’s a family name. As far back as family can go on my dad’s side, there’s a Quincy or a James. I ended up with both of them. But sometimes I tell people it stands for Queen.