Use of Patients as Health Care Sources

By Schenker, Jonathan | Public Relations Journal, July 1991 | Go to article overview
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Use of Patients as Health Care Sources

Schenker, Jonathan, Public Relations Journal

A famous celebrity, editor and housewife join together at an American Cancer Society symposium, highlighting their experiences with breast cancer.

* The network evening news interviews patients infected with the HIV virus for a new clinical trial sponsored by a pharmaceutical company.

* A teenager undertakes a local media tour looking for a suitable bone marrow donor to cure her of leukemia.

* A man who suffered a heart attack talks about his new diet, exercise program and aspirin-a-day regime to stay "heart healthy."

From the president's thyroid gland to a celebrity's substance abuse and recovery, the trials and tribulations of today's medical and psychiatric patients are increasingly tomorrow's headlines. This in-depth treatment of disease, recovery, hope and despair serves to enlighten the general population and, in many cases, may serve to prevent disease or promote healthy lifestyles in others.

But at what cost to the patient?

Patients now front-page news

The increased use of patients as sources of information for the news media can be traced to five national trends.

1. The rise of health and medical issues as news. Just a decade ago, the president's insides, and people's mastectomies and mental illnesses were not issues for public discussion. Today they are front-page news. Once these issues have been openly discussed, the flood of public discussion breaks down former barriers.

2. The rise of celebrity gossip as news. The comings and goings of celebrities used to be merely who was doing what where. Today, attention centers on who is feeling "a," being treated for "b" and recovering from "c". Once Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan came out of the "cancer closet," the door is closed for no one. Patients at every level of society are sought for commentary and personal perspective.

3. A changing population. As the life expectancy for men and women increases, health issues increasingly become a national concern.

4. The opening of laboratory doors. Recent trends have forced research facilities across the United States to open their doors and discuss ongoing clinical trials and investigations. The process of medical research is not only under the microscope of federal and other legislative agencies, but examined by business and private concerns as well.

5. Increased competition for the scarcer dollar. Today, hospitals and research labs are competing for funding. Private charities need to raise money for patient care and research. Private institutions want to showcase their patients' recovery, to fill beds. All must use the patient to demonstrate results.

These trends, coupled with the very nature of news--a vehicle which tells stories using people, process and place as key elements--encourage the increased use of patients for a wide range of organizations. These include non-profit and for-profit health-care facilities, charitable organizations, pharmaceutical companies, professional societies and individual caregivers.

Set limits to protect patient privacy

While media coverage of health issues is more open than ever, it is still important that the patient be protected from what can be viewed as an intrusive process. Clearly, the media relations professional is the person in the middle. It's necessary to balance the needs of the reporter and the demands of the medium with the rights and concerns of the patient. Throughout your dealings with all parties, two phrases must be your guidelines.

1. The patient's recovery and well-being are tantamount to everything else.

2. The media have certain needs that must be met, that may be met and that can't be met.

Since 1986, my firm has worked with a number of health-care facilities. Among them is The Renfrew Center, the nation's first residential treatment facility for women with the eating disorders of anorexia and bulimia.

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