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 bsilberg@ucsd.edu with any comments.

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.

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?

Watch this space for updates from the Communications Network’s fall conference

October 13, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bruce Trachtenberg, valiant exec of the Communications Network, the professional association of foundation communications officers, has put together a terrific lineup for this year’s event — so good, in fact, that the conference has been sold out for a while.  Fear not; I (and others, see below) will offer the occasional highlight.  Since I was shut out of last year’s meeting, I’m especially pleased to be attending this time around.

Keynote speakers include New York Times columnist op-ed columnist Frank Rich. But the concurrent sessions promise a wealth of insight from the front lines of foundation communications, from strategic discussions to practical reviews of new tools and tactics. One especially interesting feature should be the “Gorilla Engagement Squad,” a group of volunteers who will capture and share highlights of the meeting using tips for using social media tools.

Stay tuned.

In which your intrepid correspondent tries his hand at consulting

October 12, 2009 at 11:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

After three decades (ouch) of full-time employment, I recently found myself restructured out of my job as Vice President for Publishing and Communications at the New York Academy of Sciences. Given the way the world is these days, I’m in good company. I wish the Academy and its terrific staff nothing but the greatest success.

I’ve chosen to take this little bump in the road as a sign that I should try something different. So I’m embarking on a midlife career change and taking up strategic publishing and communications consulting, something I’ve been doing in one form or another in my last four full-time jobs in the health, medical, policy and professional education arenas.

My goal is to do what I can to help non-profits — professional societies, associations, advocacy groups, foundations and the like — better harness their communications resources and “storytelling” capacity to more effectively reach key audiences. And, since I’ve been there since the beginning, applying online opportunities will be my focus.

I have a number of colleagues and friends who have been in this space for several years now, and they are wizards at it. Hopefully there will be a little room for me to join them in doing good work. Thankfully, a few brave souls have agreed to take me on, and perhaps more will follow.

But enough pitching. I plan to use this space to provide what I hope will be useful observations about developments and trends in strategic communications and publishing in the non-profit sector. I welcome all comments and advice.

Stay tuned.

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