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Public Relations Is the Best Medicine

Posted At: April 15, 2009 1:02 PM
by Sarah Minkel

Working in healthcare public relations requires a great amount of knowledge about healthcare as well as public relations. According to the Health Careers Center’s Web site, individuals who specialize in healthcare public relations are responsible for communicating with physicians, nurses, administrators and patients as well as the news media, while also promoting the healthcare facility.

Healthcare facilities are in need of public relations professionals so PRSA has created the “Health Academy,” the largest professional-interest section withinPRSA. The more than 800 members have the opportunity to attend conferences and receive healthcare PR-related newsletters.

Communicating with the media
During a presentation at The University of Alabama, Dr. Glen Nowak, director of media relations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, said the top rule in media relations is to be available when they call.

“It can be difficult to get the right expert quickly to talk with a reporter,” Nowak said.

It is also important to know how to talk about current issues. At the CDC, there are new studies and statistics published weekly, including many in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. When reporters are working on stories involving these reports, it’s important that scientists answer questions in terms that can be readily understood by the average reader. Some scientists have a hard time doing this because they are more used to talking with other scientists in technical terms. Public relations practictioners can help resolve such issues by knowing what questions to ask and how to translate scientific and medical jargon into terms that can be easily understood.

Healthcare challenges
Journalists as well as PR practitioners can have a difficult time working with healthcare topics. A Schwartz Communications Healthcare IT Blog discussed a national survey by the University of Missouri which concluded that a majority of journalists who write about healthcare have never had any specialized training on the topic. When writing, journalists said it was difficult to quote medical experts, avoid technical terms and provide data and statistics.

Dr. Nowak said math and science were not his primary interests in college (he was a journalism major), but that often worked to his advantage. As a result, he knew that if something was confusing to him, it would likely be confusing to someone else.

“I know how to ask questions that can help a scientist translate their technical language into words and phrases that a wider audience would understand,” Nowak said.

The media relations division at the CDC often deals with crisis management situations, such as the outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter, controversy over vaccines causing autism in children and a bacterial meningitis outbreak at an army base. During the salmonella outbreak, it was difficult to determine the exact number of cases. Many people affected didn’t remember what they ate or didn’t seek medical attention, which means their illness never got reported to health officials. There are situations where it could take months to get enough data to link cases across the United States, and sometimes the CDC will require specialized tests to get the information.

Communication solutions
To help reporters better understand public health issues, the CDC invites journalists to meet experts and attend workshops. CDC’s Media Relations Division also works to ensure that reporters who cover the agency are well informed about new studies and activities. The Associated Press, for instance, has a reporter assigned to cover the CDC, which sometimes results in four or five stories a week based on CDCactivities or studies. CDC also uses a media monitoring service that provides quick access to news media article, giving the department an opportunity to check the accuracy of the information and make any necessary corrections.

Communicating about healthcare can be difficult because of the industry’s complexity. Public relations practitioners who work for a healthcare facility need to promote the facility’s services as well as communicate internally. There are a variety of challenges when completing these tasks, and practitioners are constantly learning new ways to improve the process.

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