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By Erica Brownfield, MD      
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       I had been interviewed by the media about the danger of styrofoam several weeks before, and here was an industry representative calling me with obvious contention over what I had said.
     “Dr. Brownfield,” he said, “we’d like to know where you got your information. We’d love to educate you further on the safety of styrofoam.”
     Luckily, I had kept all of my sources and information regarding this story and quickly supported my statements made before ending the phone call. After hanging up, I thought to myself, “Wow, people really do watch TV, and it really does matter what you say.” But of course I knew this; this is exactly why I made the decision to work with the media in educating the public about health in the first place.
  I said what?  
  The power of the media to influence public opinion and behavior is unparallelled. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey has turned obscure writers into best-selling authors. Female fans of the TV show “Friends” flocked to their hairdressers by the thousands demanding “the Rachel” after seeing actress Jennifer Aniston’s modified shag flip across the screen. More recently, and of more interest to health care providers, pharmaceutical companies have dramatically increased their profits with direct-to-consumer advertising.
     It is this power that compels me to work with the media to disseminate accurate health information to the public. What other tool do I have as a physician that is as powerful and as effective in reaching so many with health information? None. What better way to ensure the portrayal of accurate health information to the public than being directly involved in the reporting of medical information?
     Participation, admittedly, can have some unexpected consequences.
     Occasionally, I will be asked to discuss a topic that I know nothing about, and I will quickly decline and recommend someone else. But more often, I have had to decline interviews because of patient care priorities and the fact that the media usually can’t wait.
     And while the media tries to get the facts right, they often seem to be in the business of covering controversial or extreme topics while ignoring more mundane information that could help more people. And even when they are genuinely interested in educating the public about an important health topic, there are just limits to their medical knowledge. There have been a few occasions when I heard an interview I did on TV and said to myself “I didn’t say that!” and then realized that what I had said had been taken completely out of context.
  Getting it right  
  Over my six-year career at Emory, I have been interviewed several times, and I have learned that, provided you follow a few simple rules, your experience as a media source can be painless—even rewarding. For physicians who might be considering this for the first time, I would give the following advice:
     Get the questions in advance. I have found that reporters will usually provide me with a list of questions they want answered in advance. This gives me the opportunity to do any needed research or thought-collection. Most of the stories relate to internal medicine questions that I feel comfortable answering and, overall, I have been pleased by my interaction with the media. Sometimes I’ve been surprised with a question during an interview, but that is rare. (But it is for those rare occasions that I offer this next tip.)
     Don’t try to be an expert on a topic you know nothing about. I’ve learned that it is essential to know your limits before going into an interview. The reporter may have been doing research on this particular topic for months while you’ve been juggling a teaching schedule and a full caseload of different patients. If you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, just say so and move on. Don’t feel pressured to say something you might regret later. And, finally . . .
     Learn to speak in concise, 10-second soundbites if you don’t want your quotes edited beyond all recognition. This mostly applies to interviews for television and radio but has some relevance for print media as well. Long, complicated answers leave room for editing errors. Be accurate, but try to keep your advice as simple and as direct as possible, without delving into too much medical or scientific language.
  Why do it at all?  

I take the job of being interviewed by the media as one of the most important jobs I can have as a physician. And I think doctors should be proactive in promoting themselves as media resources, not to improve their own visibility but the quality of medical information given to the public.
     When I first moved to Atlanta and started at Emory, I approached CNN about starting a collaborative effort between our training physicians and their Health News department. By working with them, I felt that we could help ensure that the medical news was balanced and accurate, and at the same
time it would help us understand how news stories are researched, written, and reported. We now place medical residents in one-month internships with the network. They work with CNN producers to research and report health stories accurately. The residents’ involvement not only improves the stories, but it allows them to better understand how the media operates and how to convey information in a way that the public finds accessible and understandable.
     It is absolutely vital for all doctors to be better educated about the media’s influence on their patients. When physicians better understand the process of medical news-making and are willing to participate in that process, they are better able to influence the end product before it reaches the public.
I still find it quite comical when I have a long-lost relative or friend call me and say “I saw you on TV” and act as though this, rather than all the patients I have treated, is the greatest achievement of my life. I certainly don’t see it as that. I do hope that affecting the health of others is one of my greatest achievements. Whether it’s being in front of the camera or behind the scenes working with medical reporters and writers,
     I hope that I can continue to do just that, and I hope to influence more physicians to do the same.

Erica Brownfield is an assistant professor of medicine at Emory School of Medicine.



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