10/29/2012 04:51 EDT | Updated 12/29/2012 05:12 EST

Medical podcasts cover wide range of topics - with heaping dose of humour

Medicine can be a pretty serious business, but one would never know that listening to the banter — much of it self-deprecating — between B.C. clinical pharmacist James McCormack and Alberta family doctor Mike Allan.

The pair presents weekly audio podcasts discussing the latest scientific evidence on a wide variety of medical topics, from obesity and menopause to the potential health benefits of coffee — all with a large dose of humour.

Since 2008, McCormack and Allan have hooked up via Skype to record more than 180 podcasts with the goal of providing health-care practitioners and the public with up-to-date information about topical medical issues.

Their Therapeutics Education Collaboration ranks in the top-10 medical podcasts on iTunes' charts for North America, often surpassing those from prestigious publications like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet.

"The main reason I think that it is popular is it's a message that we get across that's an unheard message," McCormack says from his office at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

"But we do it with fun because, good grief, this stuff can be boring," he says, laughing.

"There have been evaluations of our stuff that say (listeners) like the humour. I don't know if we're funny. We try to be. There's a fair amount of self-deprecating humour. There's a fair amount of poking fun at everything that we do. We like 'The Simpsons.'"

The silly stuff, as he calls the back-and-forth with Allan, is meant to engage people.

"To make something interesting or memorable is all about keeping it funny and entertaining," agrees Allan, who practises family medicine in Edmonton, where he also teaches at the University of Alberta.

"You can just throw information at people, but it's very unlikely to be retained," Allan says. "But if you keep them interested and listening, you're far more likely to get people to pay attention and more likely to retain that information and perhaps even adopt it into their practices."

Their prescription seems to be working.

“The most entertaining and informative delivery of medical information that I have heard,” wrote one listener in an iTunes review. “They cut through the groupthink and media hype that cloud public perceptions of health issues," commented another.

McCormack says each month, about 30,000 people download the 20- to 40-minute podcasts, which are produced through subscriptions and donations, and without corporate sponsorship of any kind.

Topics dealt with so far — see — cover the medical gamut: treating sports injuries, skin disorders, insomnia and strokes; medications for gout, schizophrenia and high blood pressure; and vitamins — "not all letters are created equal."

Much of what McCormack and Allan do involves interpreting scientific research and putting it into context so listeners — practitioners like doctors, nurses and pharmacists, as well as patients — have the most up-to-date and scientifically robust information on any given topic.

"The whole point is to maintain a high standard of evidence use," explains Allan. "So what do the most recent studies show? What is the highest level of evidence that we have available to address this question?"

McCormack says both he and Allan bring a healthy dose of skepticism to subjects they research for their podcasts, which are often myth-busting in nature and aim to provide as close-to-definitive answers as possible about purported benefits versus supposed harms.

"We talk about the myths of eight glasses of water a day, the myths of going out with wet hair," he says. "We have so many."

While most of the podcasts are free, for $50 a year ($25 for students) listeners can download all the podcasts, including older episodes, as well as a monthly premium podcast available only to subscribers.

The podcasts are an extension of other educational endeavours by McCormack and Allan, who both give seminars and presentations to groups of health professionals across the country. The two had met years earlier when both were invited to address an audience in Peace River, Alta.

"And we just hit it off really well," recalls McCormack, calling Allan "hysterically funny."

"Mike and I had team-taught a bunch of things and we had had a lot of fun together and similar thought processes, so we said: 'Why not try doing a podcast?'

"And we also thought it would be a good thing (having) a pharmacist and physician chatting. That doesn't happen as often as one would think that should happen."

The goal, says Allan, is to provide listeners with evidence-based answers to questions that come up during the course of seeing patients, and doing it in an "understandable and light-hearted way."

"We try to help people. And I think that's part of the appeal, that we do try to get to the bottom line, what matters most."