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Getting the word out to public, press via CAP spokesperson training

March 2002
Rebecca Schwaab Melgares

When Nancy S. Miller, MD, pathologist and medical director of the microbiology laboratory at Washington (DC) Hospital Center, received an invitation by phone to a weekend CAP spokesperson training program, she wondered, "What is this, and what does this have to do with my practice?"

Dr. Miller soon learned that she was being offered the opportunity to participate in a weekend of training that would improve her communications with colleagues and with the public.

"Pathologists as a group are more accustomed to working behind the scenes than many other physicians," Dr. Miller says, "so it’s not easy to increase our visibility in the hospital and within our community. But it’s vitally important for our profession that our colleagues understand the role we play in helping them provide high-quality health care to their patients. The community needs to be aware of our role, too."

Dr. Miller accepted the invitation to be trained and signed an agreement to fulfill her responsibilities as one of the newest members of the CAP’s spokespersons network.

Two days of training consisted of instruction in speaking before groups and working with the media. With each participant, the trainers conducted and taped a radio interview that aired on the pathologists’ hometown radio stations, and they videotaped sound bites that were incorporated into individualized video news releases. Those video news releases were sent for broadcast to the television stations in each spokesperson’s hometown.

Soon after the program, Dr. Miller received a call from her hospital’s public relations department. The local Fox News program had received Dr. Miller’s video news release on home health testing and wanted to interview her. "I called the CAP communications staff, as we have been asked to do. They talked with me before the interview, and with their advice and the training I had received, I felt very prepared when the television crew arrived at my hospital," she says.

In fact, Dr. Miller suggested that the producer come back for another story that would follow a patient’s test specimen through the laboratory and explain the pathologist’s role in patient care.

"What I could see firsthand," Dr. Miller says, "was that we need to educate so many people about what pathologists do and what goes on in the lab. Even people you think might know these things, may not."

Educating the public and the health care community is the aim of the CAP spokespersons network.

Karim Sirgi, MD, chairman of the pathology department at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver, also participated in the spokesperson event and had just returned when he received a call from his local Fox News affiliate. Dr. Sirgi, too, was asked to do a televised interview about home health tests. Coincidentally, in the same week, Andrew Pollack of the New York Times interviewed Dr. Sirgi about tissue procurement for genomics research. "I am well versed in this issue," Dr. Sirgi says, "but I called staff to see if there were additional materials the College had on hand that could be helpful. They sent me a policy and white paper to help me hone my message for the interview."

Most important, Dr. Sirgi says, "they reminded me of some of the things we learned during our training course—to find out the reporter’s motive for doing the story, to be in control of the interview, and to stay on message."

As for the training program, he says, "I now have established a working relationship with the public affairs office in the hospital. Together with the public affairs office, pathologists can be better advocates for what the lab does, and for what the hospital does with the lab for the community."

Mary McHugh, MD, of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, NJ, agrees. She completed the spokesperson training last December and then let her hospital public relations department know. Shortly thereafter, the public relations staff asked her to join surgeons, a radiologist, and an oncologist in a panel presentation for the public on breast cancer treatment-preceded by a local TV show on women’s health.

Says Dr. McHugh: "Had I not attended the December training program, and then approached my hospital PR department to let them know I was trained and available, it is unlikely a pathologist would even be on this panel. Our role in patient care is often overlooked and not well understood."

Eric Eason, MD, a pathology resident at the Medical University of South Carolina, hopes to make more people understand. That’s why he found the class’ group-speaking instruction useful.

He took what he learned and went to a nearby elementary school to teach fifth-grade students about pathology. Soon he will speak to high school students who will be touring the hospital.

"As a pathology resident," Dr. Eason says, "I know we have to take advantage of these opportunities to teach kids about pathology. Some of these kids may want to go to medical school, and the more they know about pathology, the more likely our specialty will be able to recruit the best and the brightest."

Rebecca Schwaab Melgares is senior communications analyst for the College of American Pathologists.

Instruction in speaking before groups is offered to all CAPmembers at the ASCP/CAPAnnual Meeting and at the biennial Leadership and Government Affairs Conference. All CAPmembers are invited to tape a hometown radio interview at the Annual Meeting. For help in responding to media inquiries or more information on the training courses, call the CAPcommunications department at 800-323-4040 ext. 7538.