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Would you listen if your obese doctor tells you to lose weight?

Doctor-measures-obesity-001.jpgSomething that has been on my mind recently is obesity, specifically obesity in doctors. This may be because we cover obesity in a high percentage of our stories (1 in 3 Americans is obese, after all) or because I recently discovered that I gained ten pounds since moving to New York City. Either way, after watching Dr. Snyderman speak her mind on national television about how obese leaders are unfit to lead, I have been thinking: are patients less likely to trust doctors who are obese?

It is a valid concern because you expect people in other careers to match what they're selling - dentists have good teeth, dermatologists have nice skin, personal shoppers should be stylish, and so on. With that reasoning, shouldn't doctors be the perfect picture of health in areas of medicine that they can control? I'm not talking about doctors being sick with a cold or having asthma; I'm referring to doctors who make lifestyle choices that are clearly not healthy - being obese, smoking cigarettes, doing drugs, dinking alcohol, engaging in unprotected sex, etc. The easiest one of these to spot is obesity. Would you really listen to someone tell you to lose weight if he or she can't seem to do the same for health reasons?

A study published in the journal Obesity from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Jan 2012 shows that obese doctors are less likely to talk to their patients about weight loss -- 18% of obese doctors talked to their patients about weight whereas 32% of normal weight doctors covered the same topic. So doctors feel it too - doctors who are obese are well aware that they may come off as hypocritical if they are telling their patients to do something that they apparently have a difficult time with.

This is a difficult one for me because there is no clear solution - we clearly should not discriminate against doctors based on their physical attributes but when a doctor's appearance is actually affecting patient's health? Perhaps that's a different story. Maybe we can encourage more healthy living habits to physicians - offer reduced admission to gyms, stock the hospital cafeteria with healthier foods and drinks, keep healthy snacks in the physician workrooms, encourage the use of stairs, etc. Perhaps then doctors and patients will both be more open to the discussion of losing weight for better health outcomes.

So you want to get your story on TV...

I recently wrote a blogpost about how to pitch and get the attention of TV producers to get your health story on national television. This is in no way reflective of NBC viewpoints, but purely what I have observed during my four months here so far (four months already?! Where has the time gone?)

Since the article received good response on the Soros blog and Twitter, I wanted to share the relevant points on my own blog here:

1. Keep the pitch short and sweet. One of the most frustrating things for a producer is to receive page long pitches that clog up her inbox and take too long to read. Producers receive so much mail a day that they have to constantly empty out their inboxes – chances are your pitch will be tossed unless it makes a good first impression. The pitch should be concise, to the point, and explain what makes your story timely, relevant, and exciting to the show’s viewers.

2). Think about the viewership. Each show I work for has a distinct personality and viewership – Nightly News is hard hitting, up-to-date news for professionals who are getting off of work; The Today Show covers everything from cooking and fashion to news and medicine for stay-at-home moms and professionals as they are leaving for work; and Rock Center is an edgy news magazine show for teens and adults. A more technical science piece may make it on Nightly News, but not on The Today Show because of different audience preferences.

3). Make the producers’ jobs easier. Ways of doing this include, as mentioned before, tailoring your story for the appropriate audience. Describe why the show’s target audience will care about what you have to say. Make the show realize that having your story on air will improve their ratings. Write out possible interview questions and responses, and identify characters to appear on the segment. Instead of making the producers think about how your story will fit into their show, write it out for them.

4). Share past media exposure. If your organization has been featured in the media before, include it in the pitch. Producers always want to see beforehand whether the characters in the story are eloquent speakers, easy to understand, and relatable to the American public. Sharing such media examples also shows that your story is one worth telling since other media organizations have covered it in the past.

5). Follow up, but don’t overdo it. Because of the high volume of emails received in a day, it may take a few tries to receive a response. Try to be patient though – if you call many times in a row and the producer tells you he or she will contact back if interested, do not keep dialing them. If there is initial interest but then you don’t hear back after a while, ask the producer what you can do to help. This could include finding characters or putting together a research kit for them. Either way, follow up but do not be so persistent to the point that the producers stop responding.

6). If possible, pitch through a communications officer or public relations manager. Who the pitch comes from does not ultimately decide whether or not producers take the pitch. What does matter is clarity of the pitch and ease of the partnership. Oftentimes a public relations or communications officer knows how to package a story better than the expert who actually did the research. Experts tend to use a lot of field-specific jargon, and producers do not like that. Producers also prefer working with communications officers because these individuals are well trained in working with the media – the producers can count on a smooth partnership without having to explain the rules of the game from scratch.

For young women, melanoma is on the rise

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I'm getting to put my journalism skills to use! I wrote an article for on Monday about the 6-fold increase in melanoma incidence in the past 40 years. The final video is above and my article can be found here:

While I was writing, I really felt like I could hear Professor Brenner's voice in my head telling me about organization. The hardest part about learning journalistic writing for me was organizing the article. In this day and age where people's attention spans are short and space is limited, we need to have a catchy first paragraph, called a "lede" in the journalism world. Then we need to quickly get some of the main points across so that people who skim just the first few paragraphs will get the gist of the piece. Details and more information comes further on as the main message of the story is repeated throughout the piece.

Thanks to my wonderful editors we got this piece online in just a few hours. On Tuesday, I got another chance to write an article about a segment we did for Nightly News about BMI. Because BMI does not differentiate between muscle and fat, this 200-year-old measurement of obesity is no longer the best marker available. My article on BMI can be found here, along with the story:

One thing I've learned this week: everything needs to happen fast. Article assigned: 10 am. 1st draft due: 2 pm. Thankfully having a medical background makes reading studies a lot easier, and I tend to be a quick writer (for better or for worse). And now I really appreciate journalism classes even more, because without that quarter at Stanford, I would be a fish out of water.

#Kony2012: An amazing example of a social media campaign


By now I'm sure you have heard of Joseph Kony, the terrifying Ugandan warlord who spearheads the Lord's Resistance Army. He has abducted over 30,000 children in Northern Uganda, and continues to wreak havoc in African countries through surprise massacres - he even instructed troops to attack churches where families were congregating for Christmas Eve service. At the height of Kony's regime in Uganda, children did a night commute, where they walked miles each day to city centers so they can sleep safely without fear of being abducted. Documentary maker Jason Russell first learned of the series of atrocities when he interviewed a young boy, Jacob, whose older brother had been murdered by the Lord's Resistance Army. Russell made a promise then that he WILL stop Kony's army, and Jacob and his peers will grow up in a different, safer world.


Jacob, the face of the "invisible children"

Since then, Russell has used social media to make Kony into a household name. Through facebook, twitter, film, and the power of the younger generation, Russell has managed to reach millions of people around the world, and has succeeded in getting the attention of the US Congress. The US government even sent 100 military advisors to help bring justice, but Kony learned of the plans beforehand and escaped. Now Russell has produced a new documentary that highlights the urgency of the situation. 2012 is the year to stop this warlord, and in his video, he highlights clear steps for the viewer to take to join this explosive campaign.

A few key things stand out to me from the video:

A). By putting a human face on the issue (Jacob), Russell makes us CARE about the issue. We listen to Jacob's story, we feel hurt when he cries, and we are more likely to be driven to action by one person's story than by viewing statistics on a page.

B). By putting a personal touch on the campaign (showcasing his son Gavin), Russell makes the viewer identify with him. He's not just some random filmmaker. He has a life, a son, and this son is someone who could potentially be abducted into the LRA if he were living in Uganda. Russell himself becomes human to us, a real character in whom we trust and feel for.

C).By making the viewer feel included and empowered to join an already successful campaign (using language like "we", "you", "together"), Russell effectively pulls the viewer into the Kony2012 movement. The video emphasizes collaboration and highlights the importance of the viewer's help.

Russell has managed to make the "invisible children" of Uganda now a visible population. On April 20th, in every major city in the US, activists will meet at sundown and blanket every street with KONY posters until the sun comes up. Then when the city awakes, they will no longer be able to ignore Kony2012.

I'm blown away by how Russell used social media to gain millions of followers around the world, and it teaches me a lot about how a grassroots campaign can gain momentum so quickly if done right. We covered this last week on Nightly News, and I have no doubt that there will be more stories to come as the rest of Kony2012 unfolds.

Sexy time? Let me check in first...

Planned Parenthood has taken social media’s check-in technology to a whole new level. The ability to “check in” to establishments like restaurants, gyms, clubs, virtually anywhere, using Yelp, Foursquare, and other applications has now been applied to condoms. Before getting down and dirty, you can scan the QR code on these specially designed Planned Parenthood condoms to send information to Your “story” will then be shared on a nationwide map that pinpoints the approximate location of your safe sex, your age, relationship status, and of course, how good the experience was.

Map of where users have "checked in" around the Manhattan area

In a campaign that started this past Valentine’s Day, Planned Parenthood sent over 50,000 condoms to college campuses across America. Though critics have been decrying the effort as encouraging sex, the organization views the situation differently. In a disclaimer on the page where you enter in details of the experience, Planned Parenthood writes, “But remember: Sex happens. We’re not encouraging you to have sex or not have sex. We’re just encouraging people to be safer in their activities. This site is intended to provide a visual representation that safe sex happens too. There is strength in numbers… leadership by example. Be part of the solution.”

As someone who checks in quite religiously on Yelp, I find this concept fascinating and disturbing. At first, I was shocked. I immediately thought of all the freshman boys out there who will proudly proclaim their sexual escapades on the site, probably inversely correlated with the actual amount of sex they’re having. Then I paused. Yes, the campaign essentially shares sex stories, but the whole effort is centered around condom usage and safety. This is not “let’s share crazy sexual experiences that are going to spread around STDs”. This is “let’s share how many people are having safe sex.” The two are very different – one glorifies the act itself with no public health message, whereas the other advocates for protecting your reproductive health.

I say go for it, Planned Parenthood, and all the more power to you for being creative.
People may argue that this concept is overshare of personal information, but the participants willingly upload their information. And you’re probably lying if you say you’re not the least bit curious in looking at the map. Which states practice safer sex than others? It seems that the coasts are using these condoms more, or perhaps they are more open to sharing their experiences. From an epidemiological standpoint, I think this site will generate a goldmine of demographic information about condom users and using social media for public health initiatives.

After the whole Susan G. Komen debacle, I’m glad the organization is still sticking strong to its beliefs and coming up with innovative, edgy, and slightly hilarious ways to keep the nation’s young people healthy.

Guest Post: The Power of the Media: Using Social Networking and Ad Campaigns to Combat Stigma

social media advertising.pngFor all the hype about “Facebook Depression” and social media causing problems with youth despondency or self-image issues, media has a tremendous power to influence young people through what may be their primary mode of socialization: the internet.
Violent video games, “sexting,” and explicit music aside, technology is quite possibly the single most powerful tool for bringing positive change to youth today. Most kids spend more time using media each week than they would working a full time job, so it should be no surprise that the new battleground for promoting wellness, mental health, and appropriate self-care should be within the world of technology.

Positive Tools for Change

Many activist groups and outreach organizations have already seen the potential for reaching young people through the internet, television, and music. They have responded by building interactive networks, information databases, live chat rooms, edgy ad campaigns, and social momentum for their efforts online.
Campaigns such as To Write Love on Her Arms sponsor concerts, create graphic tees, and work hard to make college and high school students feel that suffering from depression or other mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of; they encourage early and frequent help, and they are building a youth-friendly network of hip team members and young people to be their voice.

To Write Love on Her Arms, along with groups like Bring Change 2 Mind and the Hopeline’s Pick Up the Phone tour, is reaching out in every way it knows how – including Facebook, internet ad campaigns, YouTube videos, Twitter, storytelling campaigns at high schools around the country, and national fundraising efforts. These groups are revolutionizing the way young people think about and access information on mental health issues. Organizations with similar missions include the Trevor Project (for LGBTQ youth), the Post Secret Community (for anonymous discussions), Youth Move National (for youth-led advocacy), and In Our Own Voice (for public education).

Why Young People Need Positive Media

Because teenagers and college students are at higher risk for developing eating disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental health issues during this phase of their lives than at almost any other time, effective communication is essential. For decades, the stigma surrounding mental health problems led to undiagnosed illnesses, millions of individuals suffering in silence, and thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Communicating with young people in the way that is most familiar to them is not just useful for breaking through stereotypes and stigma, it is also essential to helping kids find help as quickly and easily as possible. After all, where do teens turn when they have questions about their feelings? What tools do they use to find out if their emotions are normal or healthy? How do they express themselves?

They turn to internet search engines, they read online articles about symptoms and health, and they use social networking sites and chat rooms to talk about their problems. If the media has nothing helpful to offer when youths seek private assistance for their problems, the stigma will continue.

The media’s opportunity to break down significant mental health treatment barriers and stigma is growing even as you read this. If websites, advocacy groups, counseling lines, and health organizations rise to the digital challenge, they could build a generation of young people who are not embarrassed about the practicality of good mental hygiene or seeking help.

The efforts of some of the organizations listed above have already gone a long way to opening the discussion about mental health to young people. If the media play their cards right, mental illness can be stripped of its stigma to reveal what it is at its core: a health problem that should be addressed quickly and competently, just like any other illness would be.

With the help of bloggers, parents, Twitter-gurus and Facebook fans, donors, and news media, online mental health resources can become an effective go-to resource for young people. So do your part by choosing an organization to support with all your social media might – and know that by joining the online movement to promote mental health, you just may be helping your own child or friend.

Katie Brind’Amour is a health and wellness writer and Certified Health Education Specialist. She has a Masters in Biology and is currently pursuing her PhD in Health Services Management and Policy. She is certified in Mental Health First Aid and enjoys blogging about friendship and life in the not-so-fast lane in her spare time.

Dirty surgical tools causing deadly infections

Imagine that you go in for a routine surgery with a 6 day projected recovery time. You go into surgery, come out, go home, and think everything is okay. A day later you wake up and your surgical site is red and swollen. Hours later it's oozing pus and by the time you get taken to the ER you're feverish and delirious. A series of surgeries follow, all in an attempt to cure you of a deadly infection introduced to your body through contaminated surgical tools.

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This is the nightmare that many patients face after going through "simple" surgeries. Throughout the past few weeks, I have been working with Today Show producer Kerri Zimmer on various aspects of the piece. I'm amazed at just how much footage (and hard hard work) goes into making a 5 minute piece, which is considered a longer piece for the Today Show. To make this, Kerri flew to Virginia to interview Sharon Green-Golden, the head of the sterile processing unit at Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital in Virginia, Michigan to interview clinical engineer Jahan Azizi at the University of Michigan, and Texas to find John Harrison, the victim of a surgical site infection due to dirty instruments.

Through watching all the hours and hours of tapes that were carefully screened for the right sound bites and B-Roll (background video of people doing things like working, cleaning tools, walking around, doing their routine while the story is being narrated), I got to learn more than I ever thought I would about sterile processing. Everything needs to be washed, sterilized, and repackaged. This process is getting even harder as medical tools are getting fancier and fancier aka harder to wash. The FDA currently isn’t doing anything to regulate the sterilization process, but more and more doctors, patients, and sterilizing specialists are trying to get certification statuses for this profession.

Social Media and Healthcare?

Guest post on the Open Society Institute blog! Thanks Brett Davidson and Ben Munoz for helping me out with this one!

Ning homepage.PNG

With so many different social media platforms today, it can be confusing to identify which accounts should be used for different purposes. Recently I’ve been looking at Ning, which is a lesser known but very powerful social media platform that allows users to make their own customized social website with an easy-to-use toolkit. Organizations can create personalized communities where users set up their own page, participate in forums, post videos, images, and blog entries, access resources, and interact with other users. You have absolute control over design, whether you want to use templates or create your own, and Ning staff are available to help with technological issues. “If you are familiar with Facebook, you can use this,” says Ben Munoz, founder of more than 30 rare disease support group sites on Ning.

A popular usage of Ning in the health sector is to create online support groups for patients or survivors of medical conditions. For example, is a website designed for diabetic patients to come together and share resources, get support, and help each other live with the disease. The site, once described as “Myspace on insulin,” gives users a safe space to interact with one another and learn about ways to manage their condition from others’ experiences. contains video tutorials on how to use different insulin pumps, and forums are lively with discussion about a plethora of topics from medication efficacy and doctor recommendations to emotional struggles with diabetes. Additionally, Ning sites can serve as springboards for action and communities can engage in advocacy for certain medical causes.


Because Ning is a versatile web platform, sites can also build add-ons to allow for additional user interaction much like Facebook has. For example, launched TuAnalyze , a tool that helps users to track their Hemoglobin A1C level. Hemoglobin A1C is a marker that gives patients an idea of how well they are performing with long-term blood sugar control. TuAnalyze, developed jointly with Children’s Hospital Boston, gives users a tool to record, share, and compare their own diabetes information against community aggregated data maps. Through this tool, helps patients manage their disease—another way of helping them learn to live with their condition. All TuAnalyze users agree to have their data sent to the Children’s Hospital Boston for research purposes; aside from that, personal information is presented as anonymized aggregate data on the diabetes maps viewable on the site. You can design similar add-on features to your site, to engage users and help them learn more about your organization, your cause, and what they can do to join in the fight.

I recently interviewed Ben Munoz, who has founded many disease support group sites. In 2006, Munoz suffered a life-threatening brain hemorrhage and he created an online support community to connect with other patients like him. After he realized how much such a community could do for patients, he went on to create Ben’s Friends, a network of online social communities for rare disease patients who often are struggling through their diseases alone. All of the sites that he has created are built on the Ning platform.

“Ning works and they have a confident technical team. I don’t have to worry about buggy software,” Munoz explains. “They have a really good product development team.” However, Munoz noted a few areas where Ning could make improvements. Sometimes the themes offered to clients could be considered too “busy,” utilizing funky urban themes, which add clutter to the site. Additionally, Ning is not yet as friendly as it could be to the disabled population—for example, it is not compatible with assisted technologies such as audio conversion. Munoz feels Ning needs to look into this up and coming area of web development since many support group users need these additional features.

Despite these drawbacks, Ning offers much more customization than Twitter or Facebook, and even more than that, it allows people interested in an organization’s topic to form an online community. My general impression is that on Twitter or Facebook, the emphasis is more on the organization; for Ning, the emphasis is on not only the organization but also users on the site and their interactions with one another. This means that to have a successful Ning site, you have to draw in a loyal user base who will continue posting and utilizing your webspace. That can be a difficult thing to achieve, but as it is with any social media outlet, commitment to maintaining the account is crucial.

Norovirus attacks cruise ships and schools

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After hearing of hundreds of students being hospitalized at Rider and nearby Princeton University, Dr. Nancy Snyderman's Nightly News team decided to make a story out of it. Not just a growing problem at school campuses, Norovirus is also notorious for bringing cruise ships to dock early. In the past month there have been at least 6 incidences of cruise ships (Princess, Royal Caribbean, and others) being hit with the virus, and all the cruisegoers had to be quarantined.

First we had to brainstorm elements. Stacey, the other research assistant / production assistant, explained to me what elements are. Basically, they are all the components of a story; for example, when we get this story assignment, we think about potential cruisegoers to interview, an infectious disease doctor to get on camera to talk about Norovirus, B roll (background shots) of the school campuses and cruiseships, maybe someone from the CDC...we make a list of all these possible parts of the story and then see what can be made into a reality.

Nancy's producers have excellent relationships with doctors around the nation in every specialty imaginable, so we were quickly able to get Dr. William Schaffner, Vanderbilt Medical Center's infectious disease expert, via a satellite link onto our system here. The producer did a brief interview with him and that's what ended up in the final clip.

Also, I made a short cameo (well actually, the back of my head did) in the first draft of the story. Originally we had Nancy filming a section of the story as she walks around our office cubicles, and I was stationed at one of them! Unfortunately time constraints made that section into something she said live on set instead. Oh well, my two second claim to fame was exciting while it lasted :)

ADHD and Ritalin: are we overmedicating our kids?

Kerri Child Mind Institute.jpg

Today Show producer Kerri Z. interviewing Dr. Koplewicz as camera man makes adjustments

This past week I went on my first shoot with Kerri to the Child Mind Institute, where we interviewed Dr. Harold Koplewicz, a prominent child and adolescent psychiatrist. He had written a response piece defending ADHD medications after Dr. Alan Sroufe’s “Ritalin Gone Wrong” article in the NYTimes a few days prior. At the Child Mind Institute we heard about Dr. Koplewicz’s point of view about ADHD in the US and medications for children, and we also interviewed a family whose child seems to function better on a modified version of Ritalin for 10 months. On the flip side, Kerri also did an interview with Dr. Sroufe who wrote the original piece, which, in my opinion (and to his credit), was a little bit misunderstood. Here’s the final piece titled “Over-medicating ADHD…or over-blaming Parents?” on “The Today Show”, which aired today.

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