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In Case You Missed It: Activating the Public's Perception of Academic Medicine


Most medical schools are seen as ivory towers filled with intellects that have little in common with average people.  In this era of change, it’s not the image most Universities want or need. During a session titled  “Activating the Public’s Perception of Academic Medicine,” guest speakers offered insight and solutions into helping academic medical centers break through the stereotypes and connect more with the public and key stakeholders. First step? Don’t call ourselves academic medical centers.

First step: Ditch the phrase “Academic Medical Center”

Years of research has convinced Bill McInturff, a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public affairs survey research firm that the title “academic medical center” simply doesn’t mean anything to the general public.  He says it’s confusing.

What should we call ourselves instead? “University hospital” or “teaching and research hospital.” But be sure to use the words “teaching” and “research” together. McInturff cites research that shows the public perceives “teaching hospitals” by itself as having more errors because of students. (That’s a perception that you can turn to your advantage by emphasizing that students offer more eyes on a patient, resulting in better care.)

Other takeaways: 

  • Research shows the public doesn’t perceive a distinction between teaching hospitals and private hospitals.
  • Patients want to hear about compassionate care and quality of care. They don’t care about numbers.
  • Teaching hospitals are best known as having experts in their fields, the latest knowledge, and the most advanced technology.

Case Study: Vanderbilt University

Nashville residents have a favorable opinion of Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). The trouble was that outlying counties were not so appreciative. There was a perception that Vanderbilt was an expensive ivory tower with nothing in common with Tennessee’s average citizens. “You are what your reputation is,” says Jeffrey Balser, M.D., vice chancellor for health affairs at VUMC. “Our reputation wasn’t favorable.”

The university set out to improve its image and commissioned an impact study to reveal what the school needed to focus on. Balser says it took a big dose of humility to try and connect. An integrated outreach campaign focused on the ideas of warmth and compassion, rather than a “we are the best” mentality. The school set out to mend fences by running TV ads focused on the vital role Vanderbilt plays in the community, citing the number of poison control calls it field, number of babies delivered, and the outreach programs that help kids learn to read. A website summarized the findings of the report and emphasized other ways the school improves the lives of local communities.

The effort paid off, and Vanderbilt is now experiencing an increase in favorable public perception. But the campaign and changing attitudes will take a long-term campaign. “You can’t do it and stop,” he says. “You have to keep going. It takes years.”

Graduates: A valuable PR tool

Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell says when schools embark on public relations efforts, they tend to forget about one of their most valuable assets: their graduates. “Every county in your community probably has a doctor from your school,” he says. “Ask for their help.” Rendell says graduates are a powerful tool to help in your outreach efforts because they symbolize the role your school plays in the community and in the state.

While other panelists emphasized the need to steer clear of money in messaging, Rendell says it doesn’t hurt to remind citizens of the role your school plays in job creation and economic impact.

Other takeaways: 

  • Small town newspapers play a vital role in communities. Make sure they’re hearing about your patient stories and successes.
  • Talk to legislators all year long, not just around budget time.
  • Nurses are valuable in your PR efforts. “I’ve’ never turned away a nurse who came to my office to see me,” says Rendell.  “They are great ambassadors of your message.”
  • If doctors come to speak to lawmakers, ask them to leave expensive cars at home.  Asking for more money and showing up in fancy vehicles sends the wrong message.
  • Rendell warned against speaking out against lawmakers who may not be supportive of your efforts. “Today’s enemies may be tomorrow’s friends so don’t burn bridges.”


By: Kathy Wilets