Clinicians can communicate health messages effectively by using memorable stories to share the main message and understanding the reporter’s constraints.
An internist I frequently interviewed for TV news found purpose in helping his patients in a different and broader way. “A lot of patients enjoy seeing me on TV. They’ll say during their visit that they finally understand something because of the way I explained it on the news.”
From COVID to colonoscopies, celebrity illnesses to medical innovations, the media seek comments from physicians for their expertise and authority on a wide range of health and medical topics. For 19 years as the doctor-turned-medical-reporter at CBS Pittsburgh, I was the one calling on colleagues for these comments.
Here’s my take on three ways to put your best self forward with the media and the public:
Try to be available during lunch when possible for five to 10 minutes
One of the biggest challenges of mine is finding a physician to comment on short notice. Like clinicians, reporters are also often pressed for time. They get their news assignments mid-morning. Then they have a golden window from about 11:30 to 2:30 to collect all the elements they need: the information, the interviews, and then film the video. Everything has to be written and gathered by 3:00 so that the editor can assemble the words and pixels into a report that airs in the 4:00, 5:00, and 6:00 p.m. news. A lunch interview should only take five to 10 minutes. So, try to be available as much as possible.
The human brain is primed to remember stories. To resonate with viewers, the patient’s story (shared only with patient permission) is key.
Use a “flagging phrase”
Every now and then, I’ll be talking to a physician-friend, who says, “Yeah, I did a media interview once. But I’ll never do one again.”
“Because I said all this great stuff and the reporter only used this tiny bit that made me sound silly.”
“Did the reporter understand what you were saying? And did you signal the good stuff?”
To indicate that what you’re about to say is important, use a flagging phrase. This is a verbal cue to listen up.
1. The most important thing to remember is . . .”
2. “Basically, it comes down to . . .”
3. “After all . . .”
Know your main points, state them simply, and signal them with a flagging phrase.
The media need you. The public needs you. As a clinician, you can provide information, advice, and clarification. Be the reason someone understands.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.