Improving the Image of Physicians in the U.S.

by Sarah Sherwood

In Dr. Kaci Durbin’s excellent article today for KevinMD.com entitled Doctors: You Have a PR Problem, she describes the response to the negative portrayal and assumptions of physicians as near silent amidst the firestorm of criticism. Indeed, the public perception of physicians has been on the decline, while they are being framed as greedy and limited in knowledge. As a communications professional who has worked with scientific organizations for more than 25 years, I can assure you that not enough has been done to correct this misperception—a larger communications campaign is needed to ensure the integrity of the physician reputation. The basic communications lesson is this: If you don’t continue to define yourselves in an effective way, you will be defined by someone else. And that someone else doesn’t understand medicine as you do. Here are my recommendations:

1.  First, Increase Your Understanding of the Communications Profession

“Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.” – John D. Rockefeller

What is PR, exactly? In the medical field, there is a lack of understanding of what good communications is all about: educating the public with facts and important points of view. Good PR professionals share the truth, connect scientists with the right reporters and utilize critical third parties to educate the public. Professionals with international agency experience, and/or agencies on the international level have the skills necessary to actually alleviate perception problems. They present the facts effectively not just to the traditional media, but also directly through integrated marketing and social media campaigns. Your job is to be available to speak out on behalf of the profession and your patients.

Action:  Hire International Agency Experience to Integrate Improved Skill into Your Campaigns

2.  Move Out of Your Comfort Zone: Speak Out

I speak about this regularly because it is so critical to public identity. Being defined by your audience is often not a good place to be, because there is a true lack of knowledge when one doesn’t go through medical school or have the experience with patients over the long haul. The public doesn’t benefit from this lack of knowledge about physicians, and what they actually do for patients and society. The images we hear about are reinforced by the physician scientist, who has been socialized by our culture and through medical school to speak conservatively. But studies show that physicians have a strong intuitive side and many are extroverts—and these are the professionals who would make effective spokespersons. However, I have worked with many introverts who are successful in educating the public in a substantive way. What matters is that you do speak out. Your concern about patients each and every day is equally critical to the message as showing how much knowledge one has.

Action:  Cultivate Excellent Spokespersons

3.  Coalesce To Build Strength in Your Public Communication

Keeping quiet has significant negative ramifications, but struggling through this negative perception individually is worse—not just on morale, but on the collective reputation. An effective public campaign includes a coalition that shows strength in numbers and in the extrinsic commitment to patient care. There are many great physician organizations who concentrate on their members, but not enough on reputation and public identity. The good news is it is easily remedied through effective public education campaigns.

Action:  Support each other publicly as well as internally, with a shared campaign

4.  Empower Female and Minority Scientists To Speak Out and Educate

The physician reputation doesn’t need to soften or be ultra-personalized—that is a mistake—instead, it needs to show effectiveness and inclusion. There are patients who need to hear from female or minority physicians. Particularly, the history of women in the profession, recent and even not so recent, is not always so helpful and can add to the negativity. But that is changing, and there are many male leaders in medicine who regularly empower their female colleagues. Moreover, the strength of each culture involving women and minorities can only add to the profession’s reputation. Show off the brilliant diversity in medicine and diminish the perception (and myth) that medicine is only for white men.

Action:  Increase the comfort with the profession through important groups

Thanks to Dr. Kaci Durbin and others, we are moving toward solving the identity problem in order to understand the necessities and complexities of the profession and transition from the problem she so aptly describes. Medicine needs to be understood. Medicine needs to be appreciated for all it provides, under sometimes difficult circumstances. Medicine needs a public information campaign.

Sarah Sherwood is a publicist who has been practicing since 1990. She can be reached at sarah@sherwoodcommunications.com