Friday, October 5, 2012

Keynote Address: Can Fictional Television Make a Difference in Public Health Education?

Dr. Neal Baer receives the John P. McGovern Medal from Melanie Ross, AMWA past president, as  Barbara Snyder, current president, looks on. The award recognizes preeminent contribution to medical communication.

by Whitney Smalley-Freed

“People don’t get moved and inspired by data,” Dr. Neal Baer, writer for ER, Law and Order SVU, and A Gifted Man, explained to the large audience attending his keynote address on Thursday morning. Dr. Baer told attendees, “reporting on evidenced-based medicine is not enough,” you need the data, but you also need a story to get people to be passionate about a health care topic.  Public story telling draws from our personal experience and lives to tell a story to the public.

Using video clips from Law and Order SVU, Dr. Baer demonstrated how the private stories of patients and clinical data can be turned into public stories that can teach health information to the general population. The first episode addressed the issues raised by a study published in the journal Science showing that children who witness gun violence are more likely to commit gun violence and related it to the child catching an infectious disease. Another episode delved into whether parents have the right to decide not to vaccinate their children and how this could be detrimental to the health of other children.

“Did my show make a difference?” Dr. Baer questioned. A study on an episode of ER depicting a patient diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV indicated that only 19% of viewers knew that HPV could cause cervical cancer before watching the episode but 60% were aware of this after watching the episode.

Dr. Baer explained how BubbleTweets could be used to tie video clips to news articles and actionable steps for addressing health care topics raised by TV dramas. Social media can be used to further the knowledge of seeds planted by television.

During the question and answer session, Dr. Baer stressed the responsibility that television shows have to present health topics accurately since a large portion of the population accepts them as fact. When asked “who is your peer-review,” Dr. Baer explained the review and oversight committees involved in all of his shows.

Dr. Baer suggested that medical writers have the responsibility to start discussions and raise issues that can help establish ethical boundaries for medical frontiers.

Dr. Baer’s charge to AMWA members, “take your own stories…and make them public.” Find stories that move your audience to action.

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