Titus Schleyer, DMD, PhD

on biomedical informatics and health information technology

Tag Archives: The New York Times

Why do informaticians have such a hard time getting into the press?

Health information technology and informatics are all over the media these days. But, why do informaticians have such a hard time getting into the press? With all the great developments going on in our discipline, you’d think that we would see in-depth reporting on many topics, ranging from how we improve patient safety to how we can save money by making healthcare institutions more efficient.

This was a question that Kevin Johnson, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt University, posed last week during his keynote at the Pittsburgh Biomedical Informatics Training Program 2013 Retreat. (I had the honor of being able to attend this retreat by virtue of having to pack boxes for our move from Pittsburgh to Indy. It was great to see all my of my colleagues and friends at the Department of Biomedical Informatics again.)

Kevin gave a wonderful keynote, which, as many informatics keynotes, began with a simple question: How do you explain what you do in informatics to your parents? Answering this question successfully is something we all struggle with, Kevin being no exception. (The only thing worse than not being able to explain informatics to your parents is not being able to replicate a successful explanation. Recently, the host at a dinner party asked me what I did for a living. I launched into a fervent description of how our exciting work was changing the world. A few weeks later, I saw her again and she said: “You know, it was really great how you defined informatics the other day. What was it exactly you said again?” As I struggled to recreate the moment and what I thought I must have said, she looked at me somewhat disappointed and said: “No, that wasn’t it.” After another vain attempt of mine: “No, that wasn’t it, either.” Ever since then, I feel like Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s “The Castle.”)

In his keynote, Kevin did something really interesting. He did not talk about informatics as it is portrayed in research journals. He talked about informatics as portrayed in the newspaper, specifically the New York Times (which has done a great job reporting on HIT in recent years). He talked about informatics from the viewpoint of one of our main audiences, complete with how to tie everything back to the fundamental research domains we pursue collectively.

Kevin’s main point was that if we want to change public perceptions about informatics, we need to speak to the public. So, he tried to do that. Some time ago, after finishing a study on the financial impact of a health information exchange on the cost of emergency department care, he submitted it to JAMA. It was rejected. Shortly after that, he was talking to one of his colleagues about his experience of how JAMA had rejected the paper after the first try. His colleague said: “If you want your work to be talked about, including in the press, you need to get it into high-impact journals such as JAMA and NEJM.” Kevin: “But they said no.” His colleague: “They didn’t really mean it. If your work is important, you need to call them, explain it to them. Then they will understand and, ultimately, publish it.” Kevin: “Oh. … Well, I’ll bet you $100 that we can get it into the press if we get in published in JAMIA.” His colleague: “You’re on.”

So, Kevin lost $100. Why? Because despite meticulous preparation and a great strategy for dissemination, reporters from major newspapers don’t read the thousands of press releases about papers in hundreds of journals. They go to a few choice sources they trust.

We learned a few lessons from Kevin’s talk and the discussion that followed:

  1. Don’t stop trying to explain to your mother (or father, siblings, your son/daughter, other relatives, random conversation partners at a cocktail party, etc.) what informatics is. You may never succeed. But we definitely know you won’t succeed if you stop trying.
  2. Get your work into high-impact journals such as JAMA, NEJM and the Lancet. You will have to be patient. The readers of these journals are not informaticians. They don’t speak our language. Start writing about informatics in a way they can begin to understand.
  3. Let’s make JAMIA a valuable information resource for reporters. That means that the journal needs to continue to publish high-impact research, as well as help non-informaticians understand what it means. Maybe we need sidebars for key papers that explain the real-world impact.
  4. Be persistent. Journal editors and reviewers are powerful gatekeepers of what the world hears. If they don’t understand you, your message will certainly not be heard. If you don’t succeed at first, get help. Someone on your campus may have had quite a bit of success publishing in high-impact journals. Or, they may even be an editorial board member.
  5. Establish relationships with newspaper reporters and others. Become a trusted source of reliable information for them. One of the first things I did when I came to Regenstrief was to focus attention on doing that. Why? One of the criteria the Regenstrief Foundation uses to assess our performance is “local, regional, national and international impact.” One way it measures this: by how many times were have been cited/profiled in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the mainstream press in general.
  6. Speak to the next generation. For many senior informaticians, social media don’t rate. (Let’s not go into the reasons for this here – that would more than fill another blog post.) However, who is on social media? Our future interns, trainees, colleagues, program officers at funding agencies, representatives, etc. You get the point: If we don’t talk to the future generation, we don’t exist. And much of the conversation these days, for better or worse, is happening on social media.
  7. Let’s make being in the media something academic informatics cares about. I am happy to report that the 2013 AMIA Annual Symposium is making a start. Danny Sands will present “The Year in Review: Informatics in the Media.” I anticipate this to be a very interesting and useful session. And, why not go further? Couldn’t AMIA make it a goal for the association to get more work of its members into high-impact journals? Let’s see “#informatics” trend in JAMA, the NEJM and the Lancet!

So, is trying to get increased exposure for informatics in the mainstream media worth a try? I am hoping I have convinced you that it is. Let’s do it!

Titus Schleyer  and Kevin Johnson

Titus Schleyer, DMD, PhD

Clem McDonald Professor of Biomedical Informatics Director, Center for Biomedical Informatics Regenstrief Institute, Inc., 410 West 10th Street, Suite 2000, Indianapolis, IN 46202-3012 Skype: titus.schleyer, Ph: (317) 423-5522 (direct), cell: (412) 638-3581, E-mail: schleyer@regenstrief.org Web: http://www.regenstrief.org/cbmi/, Blog: https://titusschleyer.wordpress.com, General: http://about.me/titusschleyer