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Tips for Getting the Media’s Attention on Palliative Care Issues

Tips for Getting the Media’s Attention on Palliative Care Issues

 FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla—Has Dr. Kevorkian hijacked the media? Many people may not know that palliative care is an alternative to physician-assisted suicide, journalist and author Suzanne Gordon said at the Cleveland Clinic’s 1999 Palliative Medicine conference. Her most recent book is Life Support: Three Nurses on the Front Lines (Back Bay Books Little Brown, 1998)

“If all people hear about in the media is physician-assisted suicide, they may see it as a viable and accepted option when facing end-of-life care and decisions,”she said. “They won’t know what else to ask of the system regarding end-of-life care.”

She thinks that, as the Baby Boomer generation inches closer to old age, “they will realize that death is not optional,” and will seek information on end-of-life care and demand optimal care. “We are poised to change the American way of sickness and the American way of dying,” Ms. Gordon said.

To do this, however, the word has to get out, and the best way to do that is through the media. Ms. Gordon gave the audience, made up mostly of palliative care nurses and physicians, some tips on getting media coverage of palliative care.

When contacted by the media, she said, “you must be in control as much as possible.” Anything said to a reporter will be considered “on the record” and quotable, she cautioned. Therefore, your statements, including any background information, need to be thought out carefully ahead of time. When talking to the media, you need to make it clear how you wish to be cited. “If you don’t want your name used, say so immediately,” she said.

While journalists may call at any time of the day, she said, if you don’t feel prepared or are too busy to talk then, arrange a time that’s convenient to call them back. However, she said, be aware that journalists are on deadlines. “Journalism comes from the French ‘jour’ for day,” she said. “Return their calls promptly. It’s called journalism, not annualism.”

It is also important not to be pushed in a direction you do not want to go. Some journalists or their editors may call with an already biased slant. “Simply tell them you will not go there,” she said.

Her main point: “If you don’t define the terrain, people who you don’t want to define it will do so.” She referred to a story that appeared in the Boston Globe about a bladder cancer patient in Australia who asked to be put out of her misery “like a dog.” The article did not address pain control and palliative medicine.

She suggested several things health care professionals can do to make the media “work for you and your patients.”

First, be available for interviews. Be prepared and know specifically what it is you want people to know about palliative care; know what public perceptions you want to change; and lastly, talk English, not medical-speak. She said to think “bumper stickers” when thinking of what you want people to know. A phrass such as this one offered by an audience member—“Palliative care is the solution that makes physician-assisted suicide obsolete”— can help put in a nutshell what you need to say.

Once you are prepared to deal with the media, how do you get coverage? Send out press releases or call journalists directly. She suggested that health care professionals ask to attend editorial board meetings of local newspapers. “Get to know the journalists and let them get to know you,” she said. Also, “pay attention to the writers who are the crusaders. People who write about health issues don’t have to be solely health writers.”

Invite journalists to visit your facilities. Ms. Gordon described a visit to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston during which politicians and journalists were allowed to shadow a nurse for a day. “It was remarkable what I learned,” she said.

Another attention getter: Write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor. Op-eds are 750 to 1,200 word essays written by experts that appear opposite the editorial page. “This is a way of generating your own press,” she said.

 Ms. Gordon urged the audience to “make things easy for journalists to write about you. If there is a medical article they should read, send it to them; don’t expect them to go do the research.”

She advised institutions and professional societies not to charge journalists for coming to conferences or make them have to fight to get a conference packet. “In other words, make it easy for them to get in the door and to get as much information as possible once there,” she said. Otherwise, they may leave with a bad attitude about the issue.

“You can change the media,” she said. “For your patients and your future patients, you must change the media.”

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