Expanding the Breadth of Health Research Covered by the Media

Feb 16, 2012, 4:07 PM, Posted by

This week’s plenary at the AcademyHealth annual National Health Policy Conference focused on the media’s role in health policy and featured Austin Frakt of The Incidental Economist (which is supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and Merrill Goozner of The Fiscal Times. Frakt, a health economist, touched on virtually all of the points the speakers made during the one hour session, in a post on his blog the day of the plenary. Most important perhaps was that researchers need to do more than just issue a press release in order to disseminate their results. “I encourage researchers to get involved on Twitter and blogs. Promote the work of the community when it is timely and relevant,” wrote (and said) Frakt. Ezra Klein, who has an extensive following, invited researchers to email him and not shy away because they think he might be inundated. “Let me manage my inbox,” Klein said.

NewPublicHelath spoke with Frakt about the role of social media in reporting critical health information.

NewPublicHealth: Your training was not in health. What did you do before and did you get into the health field?

Austin Frakt: My training is in physics and engineering. I went through a PhD program in electrical engineering at MIT, and although what I was really doing was kind of applied math, I recognized during my studies that I really was interested in questions pertaining to policy. So I did finish my PhD, and the math and the rigor of it was valuable. I was intrigued by [health policy work at Abt Associates] and that’s where I ended up. It wasn’t that I was, at the time, particularly drawn to health, I just wanted to do something in the policy direction and I was particularly drawn to a rigorous, mathematical kind of evidence-based study.

NPH: And what made you focus on health policy?

Austin Frakt: There are so many pressing problems that pertain to health because of the high cost and importance to all of us of health and the complexity of health care and health insurance, and so it’s just a rich area of investigation, with plenty of data and important questions. So it is a good area to apply rigorous quantitative methods.

NPH: What specifically has been your focus?

Austin Frakt: Until pretty recently I had done largely work pertaining to the Medicare program, studying, for example, the prescription drug health plans, which became available in 2006. Before that I studied the private Medicare plan, Medicare Advantage as it’s now called, and I’ve been doing work pertaining to that for about a decade. And so, it would be a simple story if I was actually still doing that, but work has changed a little bit more recently. I work in the Department of Veteran Affairs, and I’m working on a project pertaining to substance use in the VA. Soon I’ll be starting a project pertaining to prostate cancer.

The prostate cancer effort is a comparative effectiveness, observational study comparing the outcomes of different prostate cancer treatment in the VA. So that’s consistent with the effort nowadays to do more comparative effectiveness work and that is a priority at the NIH and the VA as well.

NPH: What impact have you had with The Incidental Economist?

Austin Frakt: It has become pretty widely read among health policy wonks, journalists, policy makers, academics, health economists and health service researchers. I try to get the world to notice health services research and health economics work that might otherwise go unnoticed, and work that I think is policy relevant, and I’ve been successful with that. I conducted a webinar recently on the importance of elevating the accessibility for others of the work that the community does and bringing it to bear on current policy questions even if that work is not just recently completed. There are papers written 10, even 20 years ago that are very relevant today and if you can put them in front of the right people at the right time you can get them noticed, which is a benefit obviously to the authors of those papers and the institutions they come from, but it’s also for the whole community. So I’m kind of serving as an ambassador of the research community to the media world and hopefully to policy makers.

NPH: What are some common mistakes made in using social media to disseminate information?

Austin Frakt: I think some people think they need to use these tools just for self-promotion rather than thinking of it as promoting the knowledge that they have of the wider field that they’re in. So, for example, I could use my blog and Twitter just to advertise my own work. Well, first of all, if I did that I’d run out of material in a week because though I’ve been working at this a while, I’ve only actually done so many projects and they’re not all relevant to the issues of today. But in the course of that work, and just because of my own interests, I come across the work of others and some of it obviously is relevant, and so I think I’m both serving my own interests and the interests of the community and my fellow researchers and their institutions by trying to promote all of that work. I think that does indirectly promote me as a knowledgeable person, but it benefits more than me and I think that also lends what I do some credibility.

The other point I would make is that is about not a mistake, but a limited use of social media often made, which is to promote the work that’s been done most recently, nearly exclusively, as in essentially issuing press releases and saying well here’s what’s new. I don’t exclusively promote what’s new, but I actually look at what the policy debate is, where it is, what’s being discussed, what journalists are interested in, and I’m in communication with many of them. And then, as the questions arise I try to address their needs and interests using the research. So it’s a way of plugging into what they’re interested in, and that increases the chances they will write about it.

NPH: What role do you think media does play in health policy making?

Austin Frakt: It’s a little hard to pin down the role of media. The analogy I’d make is maybe to driving. When you get in the car, you almost always know where you want to go. But the precise way you get there and many of the details of the trip will be influenced by road signs and signals you receive along the way, and it is even possible that some of that information that you receive along the way could completely derail you. I mean, if you saw a road sign that said major earthquake damage ahead, well, you might just turn around. So to make the analogy precise, I think that with most policy, the general direction of it is not as clearly defined by the media. But details can be influenced by developments in the media. I think it was pretty clear, for example, that we were going to get some kind of health legislation in the first year or two of President Obama’s presidency, and whatever it was, he was going to call it health reform, and there are particulars we got that I think you can point to things that the media helped shape. But I don’t think you can say that health reform happened because of the media.

Weigh In: Researchers, have you had success interesting the media in health policy research? What have you found is the best way to get the word out?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.