By David Woods, HOC editor

In the June issue of HOC, we made the point that health economists should step out of their “health economics shell” to convey research findings to the public through the media. That said, reaching out to the media can prove to be no easy task.

This article, adapted from a chapter by David Woods in his book Communication for Doctors: How to Improve Patient Care and Minimize Legal Risks, provides some practical advice for successfully crossing the great divide between professionals and the public media.

Being prepared for the media interview will save health economists embarrassment and reverberations after the fact. Health economists can avoid being kicked by the media donkey if they understand this creature and learn how to treat it with firmness and respect. First of all, remember that the donkey thinks it is a thoroughbred race horse and wants everyone to admire it for its fine breeding, configuration and form. The media wants to attract the attention of readers, listeners, and advertisers. Understanding that will help you get through the interview process unscathed. Increasingly, reporters from the ranks of both print and electronic journalism are seeking out experts to comment on aspects of healthcare.

How to remain unscathed:

  • Be prepared. Nothing causes readers to turn the page and listeners and viewers to switch stations than dry rambling responses. You are, after all, the expert. But being the expert isn’t enough. Attention spans are contracting while sources of information are expanding. So you should have a very clear idea in advance of the interview of the message you want to convey.
  • Be wary. Ill considered off-the-cuff remarks can be ruinous. Keep in mind the absolute finality of the printed or broadcast word. Don’t be like the physician who mused on air about the desirability of sterilising all welfare mothers with two or more children. He lived to regret the comment for the rest of his rather foreshortened career in medical politics. Wariness should extend to realising that the donkey doesn’t only kick defensively – it may do so pre-emptively or even capriciously.
  • Be clear. Remember that the educational levels of those to whom your message is beamed differ, unless you are being interviewed in a scientific journal. So no polysyllabic words, arcane references, or medical jargon.
  • Be patient. Interviewers serve as intermediaries between the expert and the audience. They need your help and understanding in order to interpret and present facts.
  • Be humble. If you don’t know the answer, admit it. It is far better to acknowledge ignorance cheerfully and openly than to prove it by hedging and waffling.
  • Be cool. Aggressive interviewers or those with particular axes to grind should not be allowed to wear you down, nor should those who pose the same question in several different ways. Say something like “A more useful question might be xx” rather than “That’s a really silly question”.

To avoid the media donkey’s kick, understand the creature, be firm, make your intent clear, be confident but wary, and humble enough to know that it is bigger than you.

Take from: Communication for Doctors: How to Improve Patient Care and Minimize Legal Risks, by David Woods, Radcliffe Medical Press, 2004.