27th Annual AMA Medical Communications Conference

27th Annual AMA Medical Communications Conference

April 12-14, 2007

Tampa Bay, Florida

By Gina A. Petrak


According to Mike Lynch, an American Medical Association (AMA) Vice president, there has been a health-related information explosion; a cacophony of knowledge spewing from the seemingly oracular media.

The public, patients and health care professionals can obtain health-related information from diverse, yet pervasive, communication channels, including television, radio, print, film, and, increasingly important, the various information sources transmitted via the Internet. Yet little of this information is provided by professional health communicators.

This conference was attended by over 200 medical and communication students and professionals from all over the world, including Israel and Canada. They were all interested in improving their health communication knowledge and skills.

What follows is my brief summary of some of the more interesting presentations.

Workshop: Insider’s Guide to Getting on the Air

Speakers: Pat Murphy, www.MediaImageCoach.com and Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA; www.wrcr.com

The purpose of this session was to teach effective techniques for how to obtain air time on radio and television stations. We learned how to leverage being a host or guest, as well as how to turn a small-town talk show into a national one. Hands on activities included how to use the ear prompter, on-camera hosting, and marketing oneself as an on-air talent.

Tips on becoming a great guest include

· Always be yourself

· Passion for your topic and goals (express a point of view)

· Knowledge (know your subject and your audience)

· Expertise (you are the expert at the moment)

· Enthusiasm (use nervous energy as enthusiasm and vitality)

· Personable (pretend you are having a conversation with one person)

· Expand on a question (do not just answer yes or no; do not memorize)

· Engage (smile, even if you are on the radio)

· Interesting (outline significant points and stick to your outline)

· Communicate with call-in callers (radio) in an understanding manner (avoid medical jargon)

· Humor (have fun)

· Entertain (it’s about your audience, not you)

On-camera wardrobe tips: You are always safe wearing solid strong colors. Patterns, in general, take the focus away from your face; the focus should always be on your face.

If you are fair skinned, wear strong jewel tones, for example, royal blue, kelly green, dark pink, and aqua/ If you are medium to dark skinned, jewel tones will also work and you can also wear strong pastels.

Keep jewelry to a minimum because it tends to take attention away from your face and it can make noise. Never wear white, black, bright red, tight patterns, tight stripes, dots, or other patterns. White clothes will make your face appear dark; black will make your torso disappear; tight patterns will look like they are moving as the lens struggles to focus; and red can “glow” on older cameras.

One exception to the rule, black can be worn if other colors are present, for example, colored scoop neck (not white), colored collared shirt, or if more skin than shirt is visible (e.g., tank top

Gaining experience is critical. Speak as often and in as many different situations as possible. If you are building experience as a spokesperson, accept work on small projects. Finally, remember it is about the message, not you.

If you are interested in being a medical expert on Health in 30, the radio show that encourages consumers to take charge of their health and airs on WRCR, contact Barbara Ficarra at www.wrcr.com.

Barbara Ficarra is also interested in hearing from potential writers for her website. Registered nurses, physicians, health writers, journalists, holistic experts, nutritionists, fitness experts, politicians, lawyers, and all other health experts should contact her.

Workshop: Health and Medicine in the Blogs

Speakers: Anton Zuiker, Sr. Communications & Publications Research Associate, Carolina Population Center at UNC-CH; www.zuiker.com

Weblogs, or blogs for short, are a collection of entries on a frequently updated website. A blog is a communication tool. Anyone can write a blog, and a blog can be about anything. People use blogs to write about health, medicine, science, and their cancer experiences.

Medical students, physicians, nurses, EMTs, and advocates are writing blogs. For a recent tour of medical blogging, visit the Grand Rounds blog carnival (a carnival is a weekly roundup of posts on a topic).

The key problems with having your own blog is letting people know that you are out there and being consistently interesting.

The take home message of this workshop: everyone should have a blog.

Before you start a blog:

· Choose a topic – your niche or subject

· Determine a type – what’s new, filter, journal, or combo

· Decide on a title – your blog will need a name

· Decide on your presence – will you use your professional, family nickname, pseudonym, or as anonymous

Now you can create your blog:

· Go to www.wordpress.com

· Click on the rounded blue box that says “Start your Wordpress blog”

· Enter your username (presence)

· Enter your email address

· Agree to the terms of the service

· Click next

· Choose your blog domain

· Enter your blog title

· Check or uncheck the privacy button

· Click signup

· Fill in your name and profile (presence)

Check your email for the activation message. Click the link in the message. Then write down your username and password. Finally, click the login link, enter your username and password, and click login.

One final nugget of information: In 2005, the American Cancer Society (ACS) and Yahoo, launched the Blog for Hope (http://blogs.health.yahoo.com/blog-for-hope). Celebrities contribute entries on their cancer experiences. Check it out and read about how cancer affected Tom Green, Mary Hart, and Fran Drescher.

Keynote: Saving Lives & Saving Money: Transforming Health care in the 21st Century

Speaker: Newt Gingrich, Founder; The Health Center for Health Transformation; www.healthtransformation.net; 202.375.2001

Mr. Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, wants to design a health system that saves lives and saves money, in that order, by providing more choices of higher quality and lower prices in the world market. This is a daunting task.

Mr. Gingrich’s recommended reading list for creating 21st century intelligent, effective government:

· The Effective Executive, Peter F. Drucker, HarperCollins (1967)

· Leadership, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Miramax Books (2002)

· Turnaround, William Bratton, Random House (1998)

· Moneyball, Michael Lewis, WW Norton & Co. (2004)

· Winning the Future, Newt Gingrich, Regnery (2005)

· Saving Lives and Saving Money, Newt Gingrich with Dana Pavey and Anne Woodbury (2003)

· The Art of Transformation, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Desmond (2006)

I found it interesting that all but one book was written within the last ten years, as if there had been nothing important written about effective government in the last 2,500 years. Given, the fate that befell him, and given that he is a teacher of history, perhaps he could have read more widely and deeply in terms of leadership.

Workshop: Effective Advocacy Campaigns

Speakers: Pete Friedman, Chris Gade, Sandra Gordon, Russ Miller, Peter Warren

This workshop focused on how to effectively communicate your organization’s message so that it will be heard by your target audience. It dealt with how to manage your campaign, expectations, and tell your story with a limited budget. The panelists in this interactive session explained what had worked for them.

Audience members presented their campaigns and also received feedback and encouragement from the speakers.

Chris Gade, Chair, Division of External Relations at the Mayo Clinic, presented an outstanding campaign: Track the Truth (www.dmetraintruth.com). This is a campaign that is attempting to stop a railroad from building a set of high speed tracks near populated areas, endangering these areas, and using the U.S. government’s money rather than its own to do this dastardly deed.

The Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern (DM&E) Railroad wanted to reach into our pockets for a $2.3 billion “loan”; the largest federal subsidy of a private company in U.S. history. The railroad was going to use the money to lay 262 miles of high-speed rail tracks from Wyoming to Winona, MN (going right through downtown Rochester, Minnesota).

The railroad wanted to expand the line to carry coal and hazardous materials from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to the Midwest. The DM&E has the worst safety record in its class and currently operates three to four slow-moving trains carrying mostly grain products each day through downtown Rochester.

The Federal loan would enable DM&E to haul as many as 34 mile-long trains each day through downtown Rochester, passing few hundred yards from the Mayo Clinic. The trains would be traveling at high speed, carrying coal and unspecified amounts of hazardous materials.

If the railroad had an accident, the Mayo Clinic would not be able to evacuate its patients, many of whom are critically ill. The result could be a catastrophic loss of life. The Mayo Clinic is campaigning to stop the federal government from financing this private venture.

Mr. Gade presented an integrated marketing campaign that included print, video, audio, editorial, and viral marketing components. The campaign had a grass-roots component. The Mayo contacted groups, including the Sierra Club to assist its efforts.

The Mayo Clinic and the Track the Truth campaign has, so far, successfully stopped the railroad from receiving the $2.3 billion loan from the Federal Rail Administration (FRA). The FRA cited poor credit as the main reason for the denial.

But the Mayo Clinic believes that its campaign was at least partially responsible for this success. How long will the Mayo be able to hold the DM&E back? If the past is any indication, the new track is permanently sidetracked.

Elective: How to media manage: Getting the most out of your content

Speakers: Sharon Dennis, Jan Ingmire, Jeffrey Molter

Sharon Dennis is a national award-winning broadcast journalist. She currently runs The Cleveland Clinic News Service (CCNS), a medical news bureau that provides daily video-based medical content to television networks and affiliates around the country. Ms. Dennis has lead this service for three years and she has a $500,000 budget! You can see stories online at


Ms. Dennis stated that all you need to produce audio and video podcasting is a Mac computer and a $1,000 microphone.

Ms. Dennis reminded us that our issue has to be framed in terms of telling a story. For example, do not just talk about federal funding for cancer research, rather, talk federal funding for cancer research piggybacked on a current news story; perhaps, a celebrity announcing a cancer diagnosis or a reoccurrence.

Summary of the conference

The conference was uneven; there were several excellent presentations but there were also less effective presentations. Many of the less than stellar presentations were provided by amateurs.

I believe this plethora of low quality work in health communication highlights the need for more professional health communicators.

Remember we are NOT Doctors and have NO medical training.

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