SSM's Dr. Zorba Paster champions health on airwaves, in print

December 1, 2016


With a family practice, a radio show, a newspaper column and a television gig, Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician known nationally for his ability to communicate complex medical information in an approachable, easy-to-understand style and for his knack for encouraging the public toward healthy behaviors.

Paster, a family physician with SSM Health Dean Medical Group in Oregon, Wis., has hosted a weekly Wisconsin Public Radio show called "Zorba Paster on Your Health" with Tom Clark for about two decades. The show currently has about 125,000 to 150,000 listeners on 50 to 75 stations, Paster estimates. The two have worked together since the early 1980s, when Paster first began providing medical expertise on a Wisconsin Public Radio morning show hosted by Clark. Paster says he wasn't sure about speaking live on the radio, but then decided: "I'll try it."

Zorba Paster

His easy manner on the radio, and his rapport with Clark, won over listeners. Wisconsin Public Radio gave the duo their own medical show with a call-in format. Paster says, "Often people who call into the show have not gotten satisfaction somewhere within the health care system." Lots of times callers seek out Paster because they're embarrassed to ask their own doctors a certain question, because they don't understand some information they've been given, or they say no one else they've talked to has been able to figure out an ailment or medical concern.

Paster can't see the callers, and can't diagnose over the phone, but he says, "You can usually add something to their health care." This may be an alternate viewpoint, a suggested way to approach a problem, a strategy to communicate differently with a health care provider, or a way to redirect the caller to a different type of provider than those the person has seen. "You can help them improve their health care or their lives — no doubt," he says.

Staying topical
Paster never quite knows what he'll be asked about for the weekly show. One caller wanted to know why beans spark if they are microwaved. Paster didn't know. Other times, a caller may seek counsel on how to best support a loved one who is dying and advocate for the person's pain management and care. Paster also speaks publicly on a number of health-related topics, including end-of-life care.

Paster says the questions he's asked in his public role aren't too different from those he's asked at his medical practice. To stay current on topical issues, he reviews major medical journals, and requests embargoed copies of studies, so he can prepare for topics he'll discuss or write about. He also writes a newspaper column, which runs in about 10 newspapers, including the Wisconsin State Journal, and provides medical information in appearances on WISC-TV, Channel 3, both in Madison, Wis.

And did he mention he's a volunteer faculty member for the family medicine and community health department at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison? He helps to educate medical students, including two currently working with his practice.

Dr. Adam Balin, a family physician who has worked with Paster for 27 years, says of Paster, "He's truly remarkable. It is astounding to me how many things he can do. If he decides something is important or needs to happen, he doesn't see obstacles, he sees opportunities."

Balin points to Paster's work both nationally and overseas, including a commitment to improve health care in Tibet. He says one important aspect of Paster's approach to health care is that he's a critical thinker, who stays on top of information, synthesizes it with what he knows, and changes his perspective based on new information. Then he shares what he knows more broadly, to inform others about their health.

When asked how he divides his time, Paster says, "everything is blended together," and adds he doesn't view his health care commitments and his preparation for them as work. "They're pleasure," he says. "I like doing them." His medical office is just a few minutes from his home, and he doesn't watch much television. That, he says, frees up time for his many involvements.

He and his wife, Penny, parents to four grown children, both enjoy cooking and entertaining. Paster is known for sharing healthy recipes on his shows. He keeps active, too. "He walks the walk," Balin says.

Try and try again
Paster knows it can be hard for people with unhealthy habits to move toward healthy choices. "In one way, it's hard to move the needle, but in another way, it's always been hard to move the needle, so this is nothing new," he says.

He points to a change in how hypertension is treated, describing how it was documented in the 1970s that treating high blood pressure with certain medications could prevent stroke, but due to side effects from early medications and the fact that it was initially an unfamiliar approach, it took a while before patients understood taking medication for hypertension reduced their stroke risk. Now, the practice is widely accepted, he notes.

Paster believes it's also important that the public knows it often takes several attempts before a person changes a habit. "Part of the issue is empowering people to know that they can fail when they try to make changes," he says. "Often, people think that failure is not part of success, and it really is."


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.