Remembering Bruce Dan, MD, a world-class medical communicator

September 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Indulge me a moment while I ask you to join me in noting the far-too-soon passing of Dr. Bruce Dan, who died last week at age 64 of complications from a bone marrow transplant that he’d had last year as part of his treatment for leukemia.

Bruce was many things. A top CDC researcher, he was a leader of and often a spokesman for the team that helped to establish the link between toxic shock syndrome and the use of tampons, leading to design changes that no doubt saved lives. He then became a senior editor at JAMA, which is where I met him in the mid-1980s when I was in charge of science information for the AMA’s journals. He followed that with a fruitful stint as a broadcast journalist, first on TV in Chicago and later for the Medical News Network, a direct-to-physicians service that presaged many of the online medical information services common today. Along the way, he was awarded a prestigious Benton Fellowship at the University of Chicago, the CDC’s highest award for epidemic investigation and the US Public Health Service Commendation Medal.

This would have been plenty for anyone. But Bruce also was a great friend, a willing and patient mentor to me and many others, and he had an absolutely wicked sense of humor. He had a special affection for puns and pop-culture references, which I shared and which now and then found their way into his commentaries and editorials.

Bruce was an intellectually fearless participant in the weekly manuscript meetings at JAMA in which a room packed with incredibly smart editors weighed which papers, among the boxfuls (they came in the mail in those days) would make it into the precious editorial well (we worried about words on paper and page counts in those days).

Admittedly, sometimes these meetings were a tad dry for a non-physician, non-scientist like me. I was a journalist by training and though my expertise and point of view were highly valued, I certainly didn’t have the chops to weigh in on a manuscript’s technical worth or scientific or clinical worth. But I can’t recall a more enjoyable or educational experience than watching Bruce, his boss (and later mine) JAMA Editor-in-Chief George D. Lundberg, MD, and some of the other editors go at it in defending or picking apart this paper or that. It got heated sometimes, but it was the heat of expert intellectual passion, focused on trying to get the best in scientific and clinical research, policy and perspective to JAMA’s hundreds of thousands of readers (we called them readers in those days).

I missed Bruce greatly after he left JAMA, though I was fortunate enough to stay in touch during his time as a TV reporter and a Benton Fellow (my wife had been a Benton in a prior class, and we were only too happy to take advantage of alumni perks). And we stayed in touch, though increasingly infrequently, as Bruce pursued his other careers, including stints as a consultant and much sought-after speaker.

I was reminded by Bruce’s New York Times obituary  of other aspects of his remarkably diverse background. He earned his bachelor’s degree from MIT, in aeronautics of all things, then got a master’s degree from Purdue in biomedical engineering. Naturally, he decided to become a physician, gaining his MD from Vanderbilt in 1974.

Sometimes, when someone has a background and career than span so many different disciplines and interests, any one of which could easily have made for a highly successful professional life, it’s easy to wonder why he’d choose to move on to different challenges.

But the answer is just as easy, at least in Bruce’s case. Bruce was, at heart, a storyteller, in the very best sense of the words He knew the value of narrative as a powerful tool to inform, teach, lead and influence. He did this, consistently and exceptionally well, whether his target audience was researchers, clinicians, consumers, policymakers, his colleagues in those manuscript meetings, or folks like me who consider ourselves lucky to have had someone like him in our lives, if all too briefly.

Perhaps most remarkably, he even did it on his blog from the time he was diagnosed with leukemia until, with the help of his beloved wife, Lisa, an ABC correspondent whose generosity is something that my family and I know about first-hand, just before his untimely death.

I commend the blog to you as study in courage, grace, highly effective storytelling and numerous teachable moments. Although heartbreaking because we know the ending, it’s sober, optimistic, instructive, philosophical and often funny as hell – everything a great narrative should be.


A case study in the intersection between health, media and policy

May 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Health Policy, Journalism, Media business, Public Health, Storytelling, Strategic planning, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My latest blog post for the Center for Health, Media and Policy at Hunter College/CUNY addresses a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while — the challenge of clearly and effectively communicating clinical guidelines in a world that demands evidence-based medicine and effectiveness research but isn’t always so welcoming when the data doesn’t match “conventional wisdom” or there is genuine disagreement about how to best care for and advise patients.

The “case study” I refer to is the 2009 release of new mammography screening guidelines by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). I was reminded of the potential lessons in strategic communications to be learned here by a study and accompanying commentary recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, where I’m pleased to serve as Editor-at-Large. I had nothing to do with these papers, but their review of and perspective on both public perception of the guidelines and media coverage of their release is rather enlightening.

As an AJPM editor, I’m more than happy to hear what you have to think about this topic. Email me at with any comments.

What science editors have on their minds these days….

May 5, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Journalism, Mobile internet, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling | Leave a comment

I’m just back from Baltimore and the annual meeting of the Council of Science Editors (CSE), an organization with which I’ve been pleased to be associated for — OMG — more than 20 years. I was privileged to be a member of this year’s Program Committee (next year’s too) as well as serve as a moderator for three sessions, on the state of the STM marketplace, media relations tips and tricks, and how to develop a killer mobile strategy (a session organized with my colleague Robert Harington of the American Institute of Physics).

Slides from all three sessions should be up on the CSE site at some point. Until then, I’m pleased that one of the speakers at my media relations session, Brian Reid of WCG, has posted an excellent summary of his talk and those of his co-speakers, Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky, MD, and Jann Ingmire, Director of Media Relations for JAMA and the Archives Journals (yet another job I used to have that someone now does far better than I did). Check out Brian’s post here. Ivan posted his slides as well;  some very straightforward and practical advice for public information officers and other media relations types who want to know how to get his attention and that of his journalist colleagues.

Will Politics Sink a Health Care Hero?

April 4, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Health Policy, Public Health, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Harvard pediatrics and public health expert Donald Berwick, MD, just may be the most innovative and qualified administrator ever named to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). But as a number of health policy analysts have reported recently, he may well be on shaky ground.

It’s not because he doesn’t have the smarts to do the job. Rather, as a number of reports indicate, it’s because politics appears poised to trump good policy — yet again.

How can this be, you ask? Read my latest post on the Hunter College/CUNY Center for Health, Media and Policy (CHMP) blog to find out. And let me know what you think.

How is Philanthropy Using Technology to Advance its Goals? Listen to “Talking Philanthropy” and Find Out

April 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Multimedia, Philanthropy 2.0, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

My colleague Larry Blumenthal and I have just posted the latest installment in the monthly Talking Philanthropy podcast series that we do in collaboration with Philanthropy News Digest. It’s an interview that Larry and I did with Holly Ross, Executive Director of the Nonprofit Technology Network during NTEN’s recent annual conference in Washington, DC.

Larry and I chatted with Holly about a range of issues relating to how the philanthropic sector is using technology to do its work more effectively.  It was pretty obvious from the overflow crowds at the meeting — more than 2,000 people attended, compared with about 50 just 10 years earlier — that the sector is alive with innovation and creativity. We hope you’ll take a listen to Holly’s incisive comments and let us know what you think.

If you missed the inaugural installment in the series, our interview with Doug White, academic director of the George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University, please take a listen. And do stay tuned for future interviews.

La Vida Loko — What Took So Long?

November 16, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Health Policy, Journalism, Media business, Public Health, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Word in today’s New York Times that the FDA is ready to take a stand on alcohol-laced caffeinated energy drinks offers a good opportunity to consider the impact of media attention on health policy. I offer some thoughts on this in a blog posting written in my guise as a Senior Fellow at the Hunter College Center for Health, Media and Policy. See the complete post here. And please take a few minutes to explore the interesting work that the Center is doing.

What’s in a byline? If you’re the AP, not the word “writer” anymore

October 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Business Models, Communications strategy, Journalism, Media business, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I have to admit, I was a bit troubled by word that the Associated Press was dropping the term “writer” in bylines noting by whom many of its dispatches are “written.” At first, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Then, I realized that this seemingly small and, to many I’m sure, totally innocuous change, raised some much bigger issues, at least for me.

The report from mediabistro cited a memo by AP Deputy Managing Editor Tom Kent saying “that the term ‘Associated Press writer’ would be retired in favor of ‘Associated Press” in order to allow for the fact that, increasingly, articles may be written by photographers, videographers and radio reporters in addition to those working primarily in print.” The change, Kent noted, would not affect bylines for AP’s “special” writers — sports, political, business and so on — and that when several AP staffers contribute to a piece, an end note can identify them individually.

No big deal, right? Kent is just acknowledging what we already know — the “old world” journalism lines between writers, reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, producers and so on are now very fuzzy. Add in “commentators” (anyone, prophet or fool, with a position and a platform) and the growing numbers of “citizen journalists” (anyone with a cell phone and a nose for “news”), and the boundaries break down entirely.

Not necessarily a bad thing, right? I mean, what’s so special about traditional journalism and its trappings anyway? (Full disclosure: I was a reporter, editor and bureau chief for UPI — remember UPI, the AP’s arch rival? — for seven years and an editorial manager for professional/trade media for 12 more). Isn’t more news, information and perspective better for society than less? Doesn’t more reporting make it easier for citizens to decide?

Here’s the rub, for me at least, in the move to eliminate the word “writer” in favor of mushing together AP dispatch contributors in more generic bylines.

For all of the wonderful new communications tools and technology we have at our disposal, and for all of their truly transformative potential, I can’t help but think that something basic continues to erode in all channels of public discourse. I fear that all media, fueled by fast-moving technological change, are converging to a lowest common denominator,  where anyone is a “journalist” or a “publisher.” I worry that this not only panders to but accelerates the fleeting attention spans we seem to have for talking about anything that really matters. This is not only ironic but tragic given that the critical issues we face are bigger and scarier than ever.

Let me be clear. I’m not taking about evocative narrative, lush  prose or, for that matter, titles for their own sakes. I like to think that I’ve let go of print as a mindset, not just a medium, and practice what I preach in that regard.

I’m talking about the ability to write (and speak) clearly, think critically, analyze appropriately, act accordingly (and, one hopes, intelligently), and be accountable for those actions.

Am I being overly sensitive? Overly analytical? Overly romantic about or nostalgic for my UPI days? An elitist?Just a cranky old fuddy-duddy? I hope not. If so, please tell me.

Perhaps there’s nothing to be done. Maybe I’m just a Luddite when it comes to this stuff. Maybe I overly value what it means to be a good, clear “writer” and to wear that badge proudly.

I guess Joni Mitchell was right — “Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.” Hopefully the equation balances out eventually.

Will a new generation of med schools catch a “med ed 2.0” wave?

February 25, 2010 at 11:23 am | Posted in Communications strategy, Health 2.0, Medical education, Medicine 2.0, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Word that we’re on the verge of a dramatic jump in the number of US medical schools – perhaps two-dozen schools are said to have recently opened or might soon, the most in 30 years – raises all sorts of interesting issues.

Reports about this have, rightly, asked why we’re seeing this surge after years of stasis (though there was a bump years back in the ranks of osteopathic schools of medicine). A recent New York Times story said these new schools are seeking to address a long-standing imbalance in American medicine where many bright students, denied admission to US schools, studied abroad or gave up medicine altogether. The irony, the Times noted, was that at the same time, US hospitals had to use foreign-born or trained physicians to fill many residency slots. This was particularly true in inner-city and rural areas.

The Times notes that there are market forces at work here too, given a growing US population, the Baby Boomers’ march toward retirement, the thinning of the ranks of US physicians as they age as well, and so on.

Supporters of the expansion say more doctors will mean better care and expanded access to needed services, plus a more robust supply of primary care physicians to balance out the growing ranks of specialists. Critics wonder whether newly minted docs won’t just fall into the same patterns we’ve seen in the past – more specialists, concentrations of physicians in affluent areas – and whether the increased supply won’t just make the world’s most expensive health care system even more so.

All important questions, none of which I can claim to answer (though I do have opinions). So I’ll ask another one.

Being the first wave of medical schools to open in a truly digital age, might these new institutions be bold enough to provide a disruptive “med ed 2.0” experience, not just in the science they teach and the technology they offer but in culture of practice they provide? After all, established medical schools are already highly wired; incoming students have shown up for years on day one of class with laptops, now handhelds, at the ready. And there’s no lack of opportunities to fold the latest scientific advances into core studies.

But might this new crop of schools take the next step and be the places where curricula are built from the ground up to not only pass on the latest scientific knowledge and clinical techniques but to embrace “e-health” best practices,  fully shared patient-physician decision-making, effective information-sharing, and routine use of electronic records and related systems as tools for enhancing health as opposed to being efficient bulk storage devices.

I’m certainly not the first one to ask how the medical education experience might be different in the Web 2.0 world. Blogger Bertalan Meskó, a newly minted Hungarian physician now pursuing a PhD in personalized genomics, has written about this for a while and even launched a university credit course focusing on web 2.0 and medicine for medical students.

But I’d like to think that with a couple of dozen new homes available to train eager medical students who have come of age in a wired world, the result really will be worthy of a “2.0” label, or beyond. How about you?

A thousand words… at least

December 8, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Multimedia, Storytelling, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

We hear a lot in the communications community about how much better it is to show than to tell. This is one of the underpinnings of effective story-telling (no pun or irony meant) and the dramatically increased use of multimedia features in a range of vehicles developed by foundations, advocacy groups, NGOs and the like.

As some recent blog posts show, in today’s Google-ized world, the concept is especially useful when it comes to deciphering the mounds of data that come our way in ever-greater quantities and at an ever-faster pace. In such cases, “data visualization” can quickly bring very complex collections of information into stark and compelling focus.

Harvard Business Publishing offers a nice overview piece on this, Swimming in Data, by management and technology consultant John Sviokla, former Harvard Business School professor of marketing, MIS and decision sciences.

Reminding us of the quote often attributed to Napoleon, “A good sketch is better than a long speech…,” Sviokla suggests that enhanced data visualization methods is a natural way to cope with information overload. He says such techniques are efficient, can help to illustrate the basic nature of a problem and, if really good, “help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed action.” That last point has particular resonance for those of us in strategic communications.

Sviokla cites a few examples of how this theory works in practice, as does a recent post in the Science Roll blog (Bertalan Meskó, founder of Science Roll points to a spiffy visualization on “The Cost of Getting Sick” on the very cool Flowing Data site. This series of interactive polar pie charts uses data from GE and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to show what various conditions cost at different ages. Lead credit for the work goes to data designer Ben Fry, now the director of SEED visualization.

Of course, this latest generation of data visualization builds on years of work by others.  One of my personal heroes in the field is Nigel Holmes of Explanation Graphics (disclosure: Nigel did some work for me and my colleagues when I was at JAMA). Holmes is a former Time Magazine graphics director and was one of the most interesting and entertaining teachers at the now-dormant Stanford Publishing Course. And no discussion of how to effectively present data would be complete without a nod to visual communications guru Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale and author of seven books, including one of the field’s Bibles, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

The big picture on “non-profit journalism” (well, some of it anyway)

November 24, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Posted in Business Models, Communications strategy, Journalism, Media business, Philanthropy 2.0, Professional ethics, Social media | Leave a comment

Are you as fascinated as I am by the non-profit journalism trend, how foundations and NGOs (broadly defined) are supporting and even becoming journalism operations, and the implications for strategic communications?

Then take a look at NGOs and the News: Exploring a Changing Communications Landscape, a series of essays that Penn’s Annenberg School and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab have put together exploring some of the big-picture issues that such initiatives raise.

The latest essay in the series, by Natalie Fenton of Goldmiths, University of London, was just published and looks at how the internet has changed how NGOs work with established media (her take: “not enough”).

Previous pieces in the series, which began earlier this month and came to my attention through a Big Think post, include:

This series is a useful complement and offers important context for the seemingly daily reports on the fast-evolving non-profit journalism landscape (see Bruce Trachtenberg’s October 20 post on the Communications Network blog for a very helpful oveview).

And added bonus from the Nieman Journalism Lab site —  Jim Barnett weighs in on a planned Dec. 1-2 Federal Trade Commission workshop on how journalism will survive in the Internet age. The bigger question: is two days enough to figure it out? Stay tuned.

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