Emory Report
August 29, 2005
Volume 58, Number 1


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August 29, 2005
Light from under a bushel

Michael Johns is executive vice president for health affairs.

As we near the end of what for many of us has been a quiet and restorative summer break, I offer my thanks and congratulations to one particularly hard-working group of faculty: the researchers and educators who take the time and trouble to do media interviews on the latest research findings and pressing issues of the day—especially those involving developments in health and medicine that rivet the nation’s attention.

Whether the topic is a national figure’s devastating stroke, or another’s unexpected and life-threatening diagnosis of lung cancer, or a former president’s battle against obesity and heart disease, Emory faculty have seized the national bully pulpit just in the past month to interpret, explain and, yes, educate.

In the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, telephone interviews with reporters or visits to TV studios are jammed in around many other obligations. Is it ego that drives our faculty forward? Quite the contrary; I regard media relations work as an invaluable form of university service.

This is a significant form of outreach for Emory, or for any university. Sharing our informed opinions and perspective with the public is vital on many levels. Most fundamentally, it is an obligation we owe the taxpayers, parents, alumni, friends and other interested audiences who pay for our research funding, give donations to invest in our growth, and contribute all or part of our students’ tuition.

It is a crucial and indispensable way to remind these same audiences why we matter—and to fight the always dangerous perception that we and other research universities are nothing but remote ivory towers. Consider a few recent examples:
The death of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings from lung cancer, and the revelation that Dana Reeve, widow of Christopher Reeve, was fighting lung cancer despite never having been a smoker, created a sudden demand for lung cancer specialists. Winship Cancer Institute specialists Otis Brawley, Fadlo Khuri, Michael Fanucchi, Daniel Miller and Dong Shin were interviewed by a number of media outlets including CNN, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and local television stations.

• Former President Bill Clinton, in an interview with CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta—himself a School of Medicine neurosurgeon—discussed his personal battle with unhealthy eating, weight management and heart disease, eventuating in the need for a quadruple heart bypass. “Emory University’s done a study saying that obesity alone accounted for 25 percent of the increase in health costs of the last 15 years, so I thought it was a chance where I could save the most lives ... do the most good and also do something that I understood from my own experience,” said the former president, referring to a study by Rollins School of Public Health professor and health policy chair Kenneth Thorpe.

• Thorpe himself told the Sacramento Bee that week-long summer camps for kids, aimed at obesity prevention, may not be long enough to turn around diet and exercise routines permanently.

• John Beshai, an electrophysiologist in the Emory Heart Center, gave interviews to The New York Times and the AJC explaining the relationship between atrial fibrillation and stroke risk, after Coretta Scott King suffered a stroke.

In a very real sense, these medical correspondents are adjuncts in our serious business of trying to educate the public to interpret and improve their own health status and that of families. Our colleagues in Emory College and the other schools are similarly dedicated to the serious task of educating the public through the media. Recent examples include Jewish studies’ Deborah Lipstadt on Darfur and the Holocaust; political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Merle Black on anything and everything in politics; and law professor Abdullahi An-Na’im on Islamic law and human rights, to cite just a few.

We are living in an electronic age. A 2002 Gallup poll found that most Americans get their health news through television, and a Pew survey in 2004 found that 80 percent of all Internet users have searched online for health information, including information about specific diseases, drugs, doctors and hospitals.

Emory and the Woodruff Health Sciences Center must be part of this unceasing national conversation. My thanks to all our colleagues who understand that the walls of their classrooms and clinics must be expanded—and give their time and expertise accordingly.