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Getting Camera-Ready

Medical Communicators Group Helps Health Care Pros Handle the Spotlight

Medical communications can be the trickiest of journalism professions.

The information conveyed by health care professionals in the media can save—or cost—lives.

When patients are involved, strict federal privacy laws come into play. On television, complicated, often technical messages must be delivered in increasingly shorter soundbites. And in the interactive digital world of the blogosphere, it’s easy to lose control over how the information is used.

For 29 years, the National Association of Medical Communicators and the American Medical Association have teamed up to help medical professionals who are also broadcasters, writers, webcasters and organizational spokespersons to hone their skills, however optimal or not the reporting environment.

At their recently concluded annual Medical Communications Conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M., the agenda was laced with sessions devoted to helping attendees find their way in the increasingly complex media world, from a case study in how to satisfy demanding reporters and protect patient privacy when a public figure is hospitalized to training in reporting medical developments in one-minute snippets.

The organization, which in recent years has drawn about 150 people to its conference, can claim some illustrious alumni, including NBC News’ Dr. Art Ulene and ABC News’ Dr. Timothy Johnson. “Regular medical training doesn’t really prepare physicians to handle the spotlight,” said Joanne Buckley, NAMC’s executive director.

The annual meeting, she said, was born out of a “realization that there was a niche group of physicians being tapped for their medical expertise, and they could use some schooling.”

While media savvy is “more of an instinctive thing,” she added, there are certain skills and rules that can be learned even as medical communicators try to find their way in the world.

At the early April gathering, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, was honored with the first annual Health Communications Achievement Award. Although not a member of the group, Dr. Gupta—who was being considered for the surgeon general post in the Obama administration before withdrawing his name in early March—exemplifies the heights to which medical communicators can aspire.

But Ms. Buckley said the conference isn’t about fame. “It’s bigger than being in front of the camera,” she said, citing one group that attended the recent conference because they “believe that communications skills are key to delivering better medicine” and patient care. Dr. Gupta, she added, “will say the same thing: It’s medicine first.”

While the group previously was largely limited to physicians, today it is more encompassing, with members and conference attendees who are communications directors for specialty health associations, as well as nurses, dentists and even veterinarians.

“It’s a nice meeting where all these parties can interact together,” said Dr. Maria Simbra, a retired neurologist who is the medical reporter for Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV and the newly elected vice president of NAMC’s board. The meeting allows journalists to interact with sources and come away with “more realistic expectations of what each party can do, what their roles are,” she said.

Doctors who attend can get training in such basic skills as avoiding what Dr. Simbra called “doctor-ese” when explaining information to lay audiences.

Too often, Ms. Buckley said, doctors “run to the safe zone of education and hard words,” for instance, saying “cranial box” when “skull” will do.

But other skills taught at the conference have expanded along with the changing media landscape, and encompass everything from honing one-minute messages to using YouTube to speak directly to the public.

How to participate in blogging is a particular concern among medical communicators these days. One issue “is fear of the unknown,” said Ms. Buckley. “It’s not a controllable medium. Some folks measure success of that medium by the virtue of something becoming viral; others say, ‘Wait, wait, wait.’”

At the same time, she said, the beauty of blogs done right is that they can be linked to, eliminating some physicians’ fears of being misquoted.

The issues get even thornier when it comes to dispensing medical information via newer elements of the digital world, such as Facebook and Twitter.

For those who are still drawn to television, the opportunities are changing. These days, “Reporters like myself are truly a luxury at many TV shops,” said Dr. Simbra. Meanwhile, many smaller-market stations have shifted to using syndicated medical news, eliminating in some cases their need for local medical experts.

Marketing for specific hospitals cloaked as medical news makes some in the profession nervous. But on the national level, the syndicated daily talk show “The Doctors” has gathered a large daily audience around the topic, creating even more interest.

For its 30th anniversary next year, Ms. Buckley said, the organization hopes to draw more younger members to its mix. The meeting will be in April, she said, although the precise date and location haven’t been set.

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