Audiences are barraged with medical information—on TV, on the radio and on an endless number of Web sites. Complex scientific information, sticky ethical issues and contradictory advice have become a daunting problem for the ordinary consumer-patient trying to make sense of the mechanisms of disease, medical procedures and pharmaceutical drugs.
That’s where the National Association of Medical Communicators steps in. The organization’s 300 members, mostly physicians who have a media presence on TV, radio or the Internet, adhere to strict ethics in conveying medical information, with the goal of “enhancing the well-being of our audiences.”
The 27th annual Medical Communications Conference, put on by the American Medical Association and attended by NAMC members, will take place April 12-14 at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa, Fla., and, according to AMA conference organizer Jill Stewart, is expected to draw about 175 people. “It’s a boutique conference that has a lot of hands-on sessions,” Ms. Stewart said.
This year’s highlights will include addresses by five keynote speakers: former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, Director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Dr. Julie Gerberding, U.S. News & World Report Editor Brian Duffy, USA Weekend magazine’s Dr. Tedd Mitchell and medical correspondent Susan Dentzer of PBS’s “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” The Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to NBC News chief science correspondent Robert Bazell at the event’s closing dinner, hosted by NAMC.
The AMA founded its annual Medical Communications Conference 27 years ago, after its members began noticing the phenomenon of the TV doctor. Not Dr. James Kildare or “M.A.S.H.’s” Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce, who played reassuring doctors on episodic TV, but real physicians who were delivering medical news. “The AMA decided they wanted to get involved, to make sure it was accurate and objective, and started the Health Reporting Conference,” said past NAMC President Dr. Bruce Dan, who is executive director and managing editor for NBC News and GE Healthcare’s in-hospital TV network, The Patient Channel.
Within a few years of the conference’s inception a group of broadcast physicians who had been faithfully attending the conference decided that they needed a specialty society to represent their specific interests. Thus was born the National Association for Physician Broadcasters, which was renamed the National Association of Medical Communicators 10 years ago in recognition of the fact that membership had expanded to include nurses, dietitians and veterinarians, among other medical professionals.
Whereas journalists without a medical background might struggle to decipher the latest article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the members of NAMC are focused on how to communicate their existing medical knowledge in a way that informs audiences and still creates a catchy broadcast segment.
“The mainstay of the conference is to encourage people in the field of medical communication to learn how to write a TV script, how to do a standup, issues of ethics and conflicts of interest,” said Dr. Dan. These small, hands-on sessions teach everything from how to use a TelePrompTer and speak in sound bites to how to write a script and what to wear on TV.
In addition to the keynoters and the hands-on sessions, this year’s conference will take up the question, in a panel discussion, “46 Million Uninsured Americans: What’s the Story?”
“It’s a priority of the AMA to raise awareness of the uninsured problem,” said Mike Lynch, AMA VP of external communication. “If you have health insurance, you may not understand how the issue affects you. The panel will talk about that, and the way our members can communicate it to audiences.”
One of this year’s sessions that specifically relates to TV broadcasting focuses on grading health-care news. “We’re going to look at TV news stories and analyze them,” said Mr. Lynch. “Which ones got attention — and did they deserve to get attention? And which ones didn’t get attention—was it a failure of the health-care community to not present it in an interesting way, or a failure on the news media side not to see the importance of the story?”
The conference also will address ways in which the media industry has changed. Dr. G. Tim Johnson, medical editor for ABC News, who provides on-air medical analysis for “World News Tonight,” “Nightline” and “20/20,” is one of the pioneering TV physicians, along with Dr. Art Ulene on NBC’s “Today.” Dr. Johnson began his broadcast career in 1972 with a half-hour morning program on Boston’s WCVB-TV, an ABC O&O, and has seen firsthand how the media environment has changed for the physician-broadcaster.
“There’s a revolution in the worlds of medicine and media, in the sense that in the early days these two worlds ignored each other and dealt with each other with arrogance and mistrust,” he said. “Today they court each other in a torrid love affair because they’ve found out it’s good for both medical science and the media business.”
Blogs, iPods, Internet channels and other new-media platforms will be the topic of a pre-conference panel and workshop on Thursday, April 12, as well as the focus of targeted “how-to” sessions throughout the conference. Dr. Dan said conference break-out sessions will address physician-broadcasters’ interest in transitioning to new media. “Before, you had to get a job at a TV station,” he said. “Now anyone can broadcast medical information with very few resources. A camcorder and a laptop and you’re broadcasting to the whole world.”
“A lot of [conference attendees] are interested in being able to produce their own materials and put them up as podcasts,” Ms. Stewart said. “We have book authors who want to go on media tours. There’s a lot of cross-pollination. People are thinking of all platforms contributing to a single brand.”
That’s a scary prospect to many NAMC members because, with no barrier to entry, “Virtually anybody can be a contributor. … Caveat lector,” said Dr. Dan. “Everyone is interested in health and medicine, and there are a thousand Web sites for every topic. People do have to discriminate about what’s out there.”
Though NAMC members and other attendees of the Medical Communications Conference embrace the new platforms, they also see a potential downside. “In the past, the flow of information was very carefully controlled and the public only got the information after it was carefully processed,” Dr. Johnson said. “Now it’s a free-for-all and it’s hard to sort out what to believe. Then, the medical establishment owned medical information. Now you’d have to say the public owns it, in a less developed, premature form.”
Additional details on the Medical Communications Conference are available at www.namc.info.
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