Media Training: When Doctors Attack


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Late last month, The Washington Post ran a half-page story about Daniel Blejer, a 52-year-old who died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a human version of mad cow disease). The article pulled at the heartstrings, and captured his personality so well that you wanted to share a beer with him.

He may have contracted the disease due to contaminated surgical devices used when he underwent a series of brain operations in the late 1970s. The article goes on to say that dozens of patients over the past five years have potentially been exposed to the very deadly brain disorder due to the infectious agent which remained on the reused medical instruments despite sterilization.

After reading about the tragedy his family and others have had to endure, the article ran a quote from a neurologist at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. After pointing out that reusable biopsy forceps cost $800 each, the doctor said, “That’s a lot of money. There’s a cost-benefit ratio. "

Assuming he’s right, it still sounds like a cold dismissal of a person’s life to a large portion of the public. And it was an unnecessary comment, since the hospital changed its policies and will no longer use disposable instruments more than once in cases where uncertainty exists.

Here’s what he could have said instead: “After looking at the evidence, we decided to take an additional precaution and change our hospital’s policies to provide our patients with an even safer facility. " It may not be Hemmingway, but it’s a lot better than offending a large swath of the public.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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