Inspiration comes in all sizes and shapes. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a world-renowned astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, continues to inspire us with words like, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.”
Amidst all the confusion and debate in the popular press about health science, this form of uncommon sense needs more media attention. It’s a truism that may have prompted Dr. Tyson to pen a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Science Needs Better Marketing.” The same holds true for health care and the digital tools now available to support it.
We want the public to appreciate what health science does for us each day, and to understand that health science is not simply one more opinion that we can choose to ignore or accept depending on our personal belief system. But how do we, as scientists, accomplish that heroic feat without alienating consumers and patients? Or being accused of hyperbole?
Many consumers see marketing as simply a way to persuade them to buy the latest phone or fast car. But it can be used for nobler purposes, serving as an essential tool in creating aware, informed patients. Ansuya Bijur, Director of Marketing Coordination for Mayo Clinic Platform, points out that, “Patients need to make informed decisions about their care. Today, the consumer has access to a plethora of information from their smartphones. A search for ‘are vaccines safe’ on Google gets 1.4 billion results. That search includes everything from academic papers to news stories, social media posts by influencers, to a blog post by a mom in Kansas City detailing her personal experience.
“This is where marketing can help,” explains Bijur. “For example, a year-long marketing campaign tracking a COVID-19 survivor whose persistent symptoms are treated by a health care team who find novel therapies/procedures is credible, provides evidence, and is unbiased and balanced.”
Similarly, there is credible evidence to show that the three vaccines in use are having an impact of COVID-19 hospitalizations and mortality in the U.S. Those with a short memory, or are too young to remember, will likely forget that this accomplishment is only one in a long list that includes the complete eradication of smallpox, the control of poliomyelitis — after the vaccine was introduced in 1955, cases dropped from 29,000 to fewer than 900 by 1962 — and numerous other infections that once killed millions across the globe but now respond to vaccines (NEJM).
Antibiotics are another victory for health science. Today’s headlines often feature the dangers of antibiotic overuse and the spread of drug-resistant microbes. While these concerns need our attention, it would be wrong to let them distract attention from the millions of lives saved by antibiotics. Anyone who has lived long enough to remember life in the first decades on the 20th century knows the helplessness one felt when a loved one died from tuberculosis, a postoperative Staph infection, and countless other killers, or watched a child with insulin-dependent diabetes disintegrate before their eyes because there was no insulin available.
Unfortunately, telling the success stories of medicine seems to have taken a backseat among many in the mass media, to more headline-grabbing negative themes. No doubt, there are many legitimate stories about medicine’s shortcomings that need to reach the public. But journalists also need to have the critical thinking skills to step back on occasion and ask: Am I taking a negative slant because I know my editor or publisher wants more page views, which in turn translate into more ad dollars? Am I using needlessly inflammatory adjectives to spark readers’ anger?
No one is suggesting that the media roll back the clock to the days when doctors were viewed as “saints in medical garb” (M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce). But today’s culture has moved so far in the other direction, rewarding a cynicism that goes beyond reason. The comedian Stephen Colbert, in one of his more serious moments, accurately described the problem, “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow.”
Colbert and Tyson apparently share sentiments. In the WSJ editorial, Tyson says, “Let’s not forget the efforts of lab scientists. Nobody writes stories about not dying by not contracting COVID-19. So it’s time to praise the researchers who developed vaccines in record time. If heroes save lives, then they are superheroes who have saved the lives of millions — because of science.”
Mayo Clinic Platform can add several accomplishments to the list of health care success stories. In 2020, it launched Advanced Care at Home, a one-of-a-kind hospital at home program that has managed nearly 1,000 patients to date. And the Platform is currently finishing the largest-in-history analysis of patient records to find and weed out systemic racism and other forms of inequality, using health care data from 50 percent of the U.S. population. All the evidence points in one direction: Like many of our colleagues in hospitals and clinics around the world, we are making a difference in patients’ lives, a difference that more people should know about!
This piece was written by John Halamka, MD, president, and Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform.