I apologize for not posting in a while. I recently started a new job, and I’ve been trying to get up to speed on that as well as take care of a few other things. I’m happy to say that my new job is in the healthcare field, as I have found the opportunity to tell those stories to be particularly rewarding.
Not long after I joined Twitter, I found and began following Dr. Jen Gunter (@DrJenGunter). In addition to being an OB/GYN in the San Francisco area, she’s an author and thought leader in her field, frequently appearing in local and national media. The following blog post is a story that is all-too-typical of the American health care system, and one that is particularly pertinent now, after a week dominated by the Supreme Court’s hearings on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.
Whether you are in favor of the ACA or not (and I agree that it leaves some things to be desired), I imagine you all don’t like seeing stories like this.

Dr. Jen Gunter

The patient in the emergency department smelled of advanced cancer. It is the smell of rotting flesh, but even more pungent. You only ever have to smell it once.

She had been bleeding irregularly, but chalked it up to “the change.” Peri-menopausal hormonal mayhem is the most common cause of irregular vaginal bleeding, but unfortunately not the only cause.

She hadn’t gone to the doctor because she had no health insurance. The only kind of work she could get in a struggling rural community was without benefits. Her coat and shoes beside the gurney were worn and her purse from another decade. She could never afford to buy it on her own. She didn’t qualify for Medicaid, the local doctor only took insurance, and there was no Planned Parenthood or County Clinic nearby.

So nothing was done about the bleeding until she passed out at work and someone called an…

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Bachmann vaccine furor shows importance of getting out in front of misinformation

Politicians will say almost anything if they think it will help them win their next election. But in Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s quest to win the Republican nomination for President, she re-hashed an old falsehood last week – one that set off a furor in the medical community and illustrates the importance of getting out in front of misinformation in your field.

One of the issues Texas Governor Rick Perry is defending is a vaccination program he instituted in Texas schools in 2007. Sixth grade girls received Merck & Co.’s Gardasil vaccine to prevent Human papillomavirus (HPV), an STD which is linked to cervical and other types of cancers. The candidates’ criticisms have ranged from whether government should force children to have vaccinations to whether or not Perry ordered the program to get a political donation (according to the Washington Post, Merck has made nearly $30,000 in donations to Perry since) to whether getting the vaccine encourages girls to have sex prematurely.

Where the firestorm was really ignited, however, was in a TV interview Bachmann (R-MN) gave the morning after last week’s Republican debate in Florida. In the interview, Bachmann said:

“[The vaccine] comes with some very significant consequences. There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics swiftly moved to debunk Bachmann’s quote, saying in a statement “There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.” And there was criticism of Bachmann in the media. But she had already perpetuated the myth, one that plays to a skepticism many already have of vaccinations, and one already fueled by other prominent figures (such as Jenny McCarthy).

Now the medical community is not only fighting a myth, but a myth that makes sense to a lot of people based on what they already believe to be true, and one that was espoused by a prominent figure at that. And that is the hardest type of myth to fight.

The communications lesson here for any organization: get your message out there first, make your message as clear and easy to understand as possible, and keep shouting it. Don’t leave any kind of void for your “opponents” to fill, because they will. Use every communications tool that will reach your target audience to accomplish this.

In the case of the medical community, physicians should present the research they read about in Pediatrics to their patients and others in a more accessible, easier-to-understand form. Social Media is a great way to do this, especially since health care consumers are increasingly turning to these tools for health information as it is. But the most important thing is to be proactive. If the patient shows up in the office questioning the benefits of vaccines, the physician is already behind the 8-ball.

Is the news media actually biased? Or is the other side just not captivating enough?

One of the frequent complaints from this country’s political right is that the news media has a liberal bias. The political left sometimes says that the news media, specifically FOX News, has a conservative bias. Watching the TODAY show on NBC one morning this week, and seeing former House Speaker (and possible 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich) brought on to criticize President Obama’s response to the crisis in Libya without anyone from the other side to offer rebuttal certainly does bring the former complaint into question.

Or does it? Does the news media as a whole actually have a liberal or conservative slant? Or does it just seem that way? Does the media actually favor one side of the political spectrum over the other? Or does it simply give more face time to whichever side gets the most people to tune in? I’m increasingly wondering if it’s the latter.

The idea of individual media outlets being liberal or conservative editorially is nothing new. But that decision has been driven by a desire to stand out from the crowd, to be different. Say what you want about FOX News, for example, but it definitely stands out from the crowd and gets people to pay attention, and its ratings reflect as much.

Ratings (or circulation in print media and pageviews in online media) drive what you can charge for advertising. The higher the ratings, the more advertisers will be willing to pay, and the more money you make. When your parent company’s board of directors also controls holdings in a variety of other industries, it is even more likely to value short-term profits above all else, and the more profits you can show them, the happier the board will be with you.

Getting ratings/circulation/pageviews in the news business these days requires more than simply reporting what’s going on. You need powerful voices and presentation. You need to be provocative. TODAY’s producers probably brought on Newt Gingrich that day because they knew he’d say something provocative that would get people talking about TODAY. Those people then tune in tomorrow to see what happens next.

Why doesn’t the other side get put on to rebut? It’s likely because, in TODAY’s opinion, it won’t do anything to boost ratings further.

If those on the left wonder why people like John McCain can get on the Sunday talk shows frequently while major figures on the political left can’t, this is probably why. The Democratic Party’s political leaders are, in a word, boring. Even if Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer and Tim Kaine have the facts on their side (sometimes they do, sometimes not), they don’t know how to push the public’s buttons the way their Republican counterparts do. The audience quickly gets bored and turns the channel. And ratings fall.

The media does not have a liberal bias or a conservative bias. It has a RATINGS bias – a desire to get as many people to pay attention as possible while expending as few resources as possible. If only one side of an argument can make its case in sufficiently captivating fashion to boost ratings, only that side will get air time.

Happy Holidays

From my family to yours, Happy Holidays. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate the holiday.

The past year has been an interesting and eventful one for me, as I’m sure it has been for you. May 2011 be a year of success, happiness and prosperity for all of you in all facets of your life.

Until then, enjoy your holiday time with family and friends. And we’ll talk again in what is sure to be an exciting 2011.

Will new e-mail service add to Facebook experience?

The New York Times’ “Bits” blog reported Friday that Facebook will announce next week that it is adding an email service.

Facebook already has an instant messaging and direct messaging systems, but both are limited to Facebook members. This proposed new email service will give users an email address ending with facebook.com. While you’ll still have to be a Facebook member to obtain the email address and it will be integrated with Facebook’s other services, you’ll be able to use it to communicate with non-Facebook users.

One question I have right now is does this addition add to Facebook’s brand? Does it make Facebook a better product? If it doesn’t, it’s a waste of resources.

Personally, I don’t want my entire online experience to be centered around Facebook. It’s great for what it does. But I’m perfectly happy having my email separate from Facebook.

Maybe I’ll be surprised by what this new service does. But I have to see it in action first. Right now, the jury is out on it.

“Doctor’s orders” should include information exchange

Last week, I discussed the concept of the e-patient, how it is changing health care and why the healthcare world need to adjust. One of the ways physicians can adjust is by providing other resources – particularly online ones – to their patients to learn more about their condition and how they can deal with it.

Consider that physicians spend an average of only eight minutes with each patient[1]. Eight minutes! How can a physician cover everything a patient needs to know in such a short period of time? Throw in widespread public skepticism, if not outright distrust, of what insurers and the pharmaceutical industry tells them, and it’s no wonder that, according to a Pew Internet and American Life study, 61% of adults are using the internet to look up health care information.

Physicians need to change their patient interaction habits accordingly. They should know what resources are out there, know how reliable they are and be able to direct their patients to them.

This doesn’t have to be limited to literature on their treatment options, though it should certainly include that if relevant. But it can also include information about message boards, tweetchats (there are several of them on Twitter) and other places where those suffering from cancer, diabetes and the like can go to learn more about their condition, or even just get emotional support.

Maybe patients will have already checked out those resources. But they may not know what resources are out there. Physicians should be able to provide this information to their patients. In the age of the e-patient, “doctor’s orders” should go beyond medication, diet and behavior.

[1] Tustin, N. (2010). The Role of Patient Satisfaction in Online Health Information Seeking. Journal of Health Communication , 15 (1), 3-17.

Marketers shouldn’t forget “Mommy Bloggers”

Two decades ago, if you were a pharmaceutical company looking to market a new pharmaceutical drug, your marketing communications plan consisted mostly of three tactics:

1. Sales representatives meeting with physicians

2. Placing articles on your clinical studies in medical journals

3. Paid advertising

Pharmaceutical marketing has changed dramatically since then. But while much of the talk has centered on Facebook, Twitter and the company’s own social media tools, there is another social media platform out there that marketers would be well-advised to pay attention to: MOMMY BLOGGERS.

They’re mothers who share their experiences raising kids and families online. Some are stay at home moms. Some work part-time. Some have great and very lucrative full-time careers. But they share their thoughts on everything from their experiences toilet training to how to prepare kids for long trips. And many of their posts contain recommendations on which products to buy, including medicines.

Granted, if a child has cancer (heaven forbid!!!), they’re likely simply going to follow the recommendations laid out by a medical professional. But what about conditions like head lice or the common cold that, while a nuisance, are by no means life threatening? Moms (and Dads too) are increasingly internet-savvy, and will likely take to the internet to find out about treatment options. If another Mom has blogged about how they treated their kid’s head lice infestation or whether the cold treatment they used last week worked or not, it could come up in search engine results.

Pediatricians, like other primary care physicians, often do not get to spend much time with each patient. If the parent already understand available treatment options and proposes one to the prescriber, and the prescriber finds no medical reason not to prescribe it, he or she may just write a script right away.

Mommy Bloggers can be potent messengers on any other topic related to raising children. If they hated a particular type of stroller they bought a couple of weeks ago, they may write about it. If they think Teletubbies is a great show to have young children watch, they may write as much. If they think the cashiers at the local Kids R Us are rude, they may vent about it in the blogosphere. These messages can go viral quickly and either greatly benefit or greatly damage a product’s brand.

Should a company focus all of its marketing efforts on mommy bloggers, or even mothers in general? Of course not. And there are way too many out there to target each one individually anyway. But marketing professionals definitely should pay attention to what these bloggers are writing. Because when your target audience is caregivers of children, who has more credibility than other caregivers who have used those products already?

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