Though their reputation remains intact and coverage of their industry continues to increase, medical pros still struggle to find a place in a media obsessed with managed-care issues.
Coverage of healthcare professionals has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Much of that is in response to rising public concern about both access to quality healthcare and how it will be paid for.
What used to be a fairly straightforward doctor-patient experience - with decisions about treatment made strictly on medical grounds - has evolved into a complex relationship. Now a visit to the local clinic, hospital, or medical office includes issues such as the type of insurance coverage the patient has, whether or not the managed-care company will approve a procedure, and even whether the doctor can afford the malpractice insurance for the treatment.
It's hard to underestimate the impact that managed care has had, not only on healthcare pros, but also on the media's and public's perception of the medical industry as a whole. Virtually all Americans, save for the very rich, find themselves negotiating a labyrinth of private and public health bureaucracies when looking for medical treatment.
Frustration fuels media
The media has seized upon this growing public exasperation. "When I first got in this field 25 years ago, no one understood healthcare PR," says Ross Goldberg, president of LA-based Kevin/Ross Public Relations. "Now I'm in an industry that's on page one of the newspapers every day."
In many cases, these stories often portray the modern healthcare industry in a less than flattering light, focusing on families unable to get HMO approval for treatments or being forced to switch to a new doctor all in the name of increased managed-care profits. "There is an adversarial relationship between the media and managed care, notes Goldberg. The result, he adds, is that "the public has lost of lot of trust in the healthcare system as a whole."
But PR pros stress this hasn't necessarily hurt the image of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. "For the most part, the respect for their knowledge and authority is intact, says Ronald Hanser of Des Moines, IA-based Hanser & Associates. "If there is anxiety, it is directed at the third-party payer, the HMO, or managed-care role."
The biggest change in media coverage is that healthcare pros are no longer covered solely by the science and health beats. Instead, different aspects of healthcare may be covered by business, legal, legislative, or tech reporters.
Increasingly, reporters are becoming well versed in both business and medical issues. "Over the past couple of years, you're finding more and more reporters know a lot about it because, like everyone else, they're immersed in it, says Jon Hendl, senior account supervisor with the MWW Group, which represents The Medical Society of New Jersey among other healthcare clients. "Reporters are just like everybody else; they have to deal with managed care too."
But some argue that journalists' increasing knowledge hasn't necessarily translated into better reporting - especially in the general interest press.
"We're still so locked into scorecard journalism, says Andrew Kraus, VP with Huntington, NY-based Epoch 5 Public Relations. "We're also locked into reporting from a sensational standpoint. From the electronic media, there is no question this is the case. And if you look at print media, they provide little insight on so many issues, such as why so many hospitals are losing money, or why general practitioners have twice as many patients as they had 10 years ago."
Issues leave little room for image
This rise of issue-driven healthcare stories has made it difficult to find space for the image-enhancing stories about medical pros in general, such as the return of bedside manner or the traveling nurse who still makes house calls.
Chris Foster, VP in the healthcare practice at Fleishman-Hillard's DC office, represents the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, and was able to generate some coverage of critical care nurses working in the frontline burn units following September 11.
But, he adds, general features of nursing remain a tough sell, even to the lifestyle press. "We're trying to get those stories out, but they're not getting much play, Foster adds. "Every once in a while, you get 'a day in the life' piece, but not as many as we need."
However, he does note the current shortage of certified nurses has been getting ample coverage, especially by broadcast outlets. "TV is great because we can provide visuals of nurses taking care of critically ill patients, he adds.
The leading healthcare professionals reporters tend to be from elite media outlets and include The Washington Post's Bill Brubaker, Julie Appleby of USA Today, Rhonda Rundle and Bernard Wysocki of The Wall Street Journal, and editor David Olmos and reporters Charles Ornstein and Denise Gellene of the LA Times.
Trade publications are also a major target of media relations efforts.
Top reporters on the trade side include HealthLeaders senior editor Chris Rauber and Modern Healthcare news editor Barbara Kirchheimer.
Given the sheer number of hospitals, clinics, doctors, nursing homes and other medical professionals - many with at least a token PR operation - healthcare reporters often find themselves inundated with pitches. Rauber complains that many come from "people who clearly don't know anything about our magazine. Even spending five or 10 minutes getting familiar with the magazine is better than no time."
It helps to know the right doctor
As healthcare journalism has evolved into a major business and public policy story, many articles are written without the input of doctors and nurses. But Rauber says that although his stories are business-focused, "if a doctor is a member of a medical group, has a good understanding of the business issues, and is willing to talk to them ... we're happy to talk to a physician, he says.
Mark O'Toole, VP with the Boston-based Castle Group, says it's up to the agency or internal corporate communications executive to make sure there are media-trained healthcare professionals available who can step in when needed. "Obviously you need to have the credibility of physicians somewhere in the chain, he adds. "When reporters do a story on a hospital or healthcare company, they like to humanize it with names and faces."
Johnny Hagerman, media specialist for PR at LA's Cedars Sinai Medical Center - known as the hospital of the stars - says the facility has been able to generate global coverage through some of its famed staff, most notably neurosurgeon Dr. Keith Black. But he says the bulk of its PR efforts remain focused on the local community.
Almost every PR pro PRWeek spoke to recommends getting journalists out to hospitals and clinics so that the coverage moves away from the numbers and public policy debates and back to the hands-on role doctors and nurses play in caring for the public. "Healthcare is a show-and-tell type story, and it's important to make the reporter part of that experience, says Kraus.
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington
Post; USA Today; LA Times; Chicago Tribune
Magazines: Time; Newsweek; US News & World Report; BusinessWeek; Forbes;
Fortune; New York and other urban publications; Crain's New York
Business and other business journals
Trade titles: McKnight's Long-Term Care News; The Clinical Advisor;
Cortlandt Forum; Physicians Weekly; Journal of the AMA; Modern
Healthcare; HealthLeaders; Journal of Critical Care Nursing; Physician
Financial News; Managed Care Week Newsletter; Physician Compensation
Report; Medical Marketing & Media
TV & Radio: News shows; Today; Good Morning America; Dateline; 20/20; 60
Websites: WebMD; MedScape