For a long time doctors lived within the image of their institutions. Medical schools, hospitals and organizations controlled what we knew and understood about doctors. Pictures, quotes and messages were carefully crafted to project one image of a hospital and its staff. And just a decade ago few physicians had a voice.
Now every physician is potentially a broadcaster or journalist. We now hear from doctors with all kinds of opinions, ideas and agendas. For the first time in modern history we’re seeing what’s behind the white coat. While this should be seen as cause for celebration it has lead others to have concern.
Public affairs for generations has run interference with ‘the press.’ Presses, of course, are a thing of the past and I, as a physician, interact with members of the mainstream media and citizen journalists on what seems to be a daily basis. To run every public transmission or engagement of mine through a public affairs office would take a part-time employee. Not sustainable for any institution.
Public affairs professionals no longer control the public image of our hospitals and medical schools. Any doctor with a smart phone is public affairs – a brand ambassador for their hospital or group. Many of those once responsible for crafting the message are figuring out how to wrangle our evolving role. Some want desperately to control it. The really smart ones see what’s going on and leverage the newly democratized medical masses to carry their stories.
So what’s a medical school or hospital to do?
- Build an army. Create an army of engaged medical staff that are smart, savvy, passionate and willing to launch the stories of your facility. Start by identifying those who are already speaking. Look for those who might be willing to speak, type, videotape, retweet, post, curate or record.
- Value your messengers. Recognize that communication and engagement should be part of a doctor’s work. Active social dialog and the creation of content takes time and emotional bandwidth. While you can start with after hours ‘volunteers,’ it’s neither sustainable or the best way to cultivate a powerful force of motivated medical messengers. Key physician communicators should be compensated or given academic release time.
- Train the young. Rotating students, residents and young medical staff need to understand the boundaries of public dialog. Integrate digital professionalism into orientation and ongoing training.
- Understand that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Transparency is a key principle in the age of networked intelligence. Institutions need to be tolerant of (and even cultivate) the unique voices and individuality that now represent the new face of medicine. And that means understanding that social dialog is part of the new world order.
Medical schools and hospitals need to embrace their staff as their new public affairs professionals. But it’s not all as scary as it seems. And between risk and opportunity, I’ll put my money on opportunity.