Real excitement, realistic expectations

The key in medical communications is to educate without creating false hope, says Cleveland Clinic's Eileen Sheil.

The US has some of the most respected healthcare institutions in the world that discover highly advanced medical technologies, treatments, and cures. Recently, researchers at Georgetown University discovered a way to predict the likelihood that a healthy adult will develop Alzheimer’s disease through a blood test. Although years from being available to the public, the concept that you can take steps to slow the progression of this terrible disease that affected 5.2 million Americans in 2013, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, is promising.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of talking with a prominent researcher at a major university. As he discussed his work, he mentioned there are about 6 billion data points in any one person’s genome. Once researchers understand it, one small defect may shed light on an individual’s risk of certain diseases, reaction to a drug, or likelihood of a specific side effect. He shared that his genome profile revealed that he was 30% to 40% more likely to get Alzheimer’s down the road.

The public desire for cures and answers is understandably insatiable, especially in regards to a serious illness. Medical breakthroughs are exciting, but are often many years away from benefiting the public at large. The key in communications – and it can be tricky to accomplish – is to set the right expectation and educate without creating false hope.

We learned this firsthand in 2010 after a Cleveland Clinic research team discovered a prototype vaccine to prevent breast cancer in mice. The researchers have made great progress and hope that the vaccine someday might be used to prevent breast cancer in women, much like vaccines are used to prevent childhood diseases. As you would imagine, we were all very excited.

Once the announcement hit, we were inundated with phone calls from women and family members who wanted to know where and how to get the vaccine. In addition, our marketing team also placed ads in national newspapers that created even more confusion about the availability of the vaccine. The PR and marketing teams were not fully aligned in the strategy to manage and promote the news. There was congratulatory and critical feedback from the public about the announcement. 

It took a second round of careful and clear communications to clarify that it would be years before it would be available to patients. We shared expanded key messages with the media, the public, and other stakeholders. As a team, we learned to better anticipate the unintended consequences of a complex announcement and be prepared ahead of time with very strong messages up front that help to avoid the public’s misunderstanding.

Early on, we did contemplate whether we should have waited before sharing the news, but also knew that there was a need to build awareness to get additional support and funding. In September of last year, Cleveland Clinic received a substantial financial gift and created a spin-off company to conduct pre-clinical work and to obtain FDA approval to begin human trials.

As researchers work to solve the world’s medical mysteries, communicators must carefully develop a strategy to balance good news with the public appetite for a cure.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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