Educating patients through the power of the press: The effect of AMA media briefings

The AMA has informed the public about the latest in health care news and treatments through this long-running series of presentations to the print and electronic media.

Posted Sept. 12, 2005.

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Next month -- on Oct. 27, to be exact -- the American Medical Association will present another in its long-running series of media briefings to an assemblage of print and electronic journalists in New York City. The theme will be diabetes, and a panel of experts will convey to the media recent developments in the treatment of the disease and provide updates on the progress of research. The reports will appear in the next days and weeks in a variety of media, ranging from television news to newspapers to consumer magazines.

It will be the latest in a series than began in the late 1980s -- there have been nearly 80 such sessions since -- and represents a current iteration of the AMA's long tradition of providing health information to the public. That tradition, sometimes overlooked by the medical community because it is geared more to consumers than to professionals, dates back to the 1920s. It was then that the legendary JAMA editor Morris Fishbein, MD, founded Hygeia, a consumer magazine (later to become Today's Health) providing wellness and fitness information. When that method of communication became too expensive (Today's Health was sold in 1976), the AMA began placing increasing emphasis on using the media to keep the public informed.

One process that has evolved from that emphasis is the series of media briefings, arranged by the AMA's Science News Dept., that are designed to generate awareness and inform the general public on significant and recent advances in health care. The educational forums for journalists frequently call attention to breaking medical news and feature top authorities from major universities and institutions. The most recent briefing, in August, was presented in cooperation with the National Parent-Teachers Assn. and dealt with facets of child and adolescent health ranging from preventable diseases to obesity.

Also, the AMA holds an Annual Science Reporters Conference that covers a wide range of medical topics and feature distinguished speakers. This year's -- the 24th such meeting -- will be held Nov. 10 in Washington, D.C.

Most of the briefings are conducted in conjunction with commercial sponsors, but strict guidelines prohibit any mention of product names. Speakers and presenters are selected with input from the AMA's Council on Scientific and Public Health Affairs and, where appropriate, national medical specialty societies, and the AMA retains full editorial control. Any speaker's potential conflict of interest is clearly indicated. In addition to the live briefings, the AMA distributes video, audio, and print news releases to media outlets throughout the country, and conducts a radio media tour featuring a selected speaker on live and recorded programs.

The briefings, of course, represent only one segment of the AMA's continuing commitment to educating the public. Media releases are prepared on major JAMA and specialty journal articles, and special briefings also are conducted featuring JAMA's quarterly theme issues.

Many observers view the AMA as an organization focused on legislation and economics. These areas are indeed important. Advocacy -- for patients and for physicians -- is appropriately a major activity of any membership organization. But the AMA's mission of helping keep the public aware of what is possible in terms of treatment and healthy living is in line with the long-standing core purpose of the AMA, "to promote the science and art of medicine and the betterment of public health."

Every physician has an opportunity to convey health information during every individual patient encounter, and most do so admirably. But through the utilization of mass-media outlets, the AMA is regularly raising the awareness of millions of Americans on the latest developments in health care.

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