Executive Director's Column: On Image

Robert A. Wynbrandt, Executive Director & General Counsel

STS News, Spring 2018 -- Most readers of STS News will not independently remember this, but there was a time when physician advertising was banned in the United States. It was not so long ago when the American Medical Association, then boasting a membership that actually included a majority of US licensed physicians, maintained and enforced such a ban. However, in the wake of a 1975 US Supreme Court decision that declared Virginia’s ban on lawyer advertising unconstitutional, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the AMA for its analogous misdeeds in the medical profession. By 1980, my first year in legal practice, a federal appellate court had rejected the AMA’s challenge and upheld an FDA Order that it “cease and desist from promulgating, implementing and enforcing restraints on advertising ... by physicians ...” except when such advertising was false or deceptive. That ruling was finally upheld by the Supreme Court in 1982.

As any casual reader of an airline inflight magazine can attest, the AMA’s former ban on physician advertising is now as antiquated as all those Disney VHS videotapes I bought when my kids were young. And not only is physician advertising alive and well, but information about physicians is abundant and readily available through the internet and all forms of social media. 

In this world of plentiful information available to the public about physicians, as a function of both advertising and other promotional vehicles created by physicians, as well as numerous sources of information generated by third parties, cardiothoracic surgeons are wise to pay attention to their public images, e.g., by periodically “googling themselves” and learning about how they are depicted on the internet, which can be a source of false and misleading information. Some fortunate STS members may work at hospitals where this task is performed for them by marketing professionals. Such due diligence might strike some as a waste of time, if not narcissistic, but nothing can put a damper on one’s professional image—and potentially one’s career—like false or misleading information disseminated to the public. And while it’s true that some false or misleading information is virtually impossible to eliminate or correct in the virtual public square, just the knowledge of what your colleagues, administrators, and patients may be hearing and reading about you will at least arm you with information that you can affirmatively counteract in your dealings with them.

Cardiothoracic surgeons are wise to pay attention to their public images.

Medical specialties and their national societies also have to be mindful of their images. A negative image of a specialty impacts the interests of prospective trainees (i.e., the lifeblood of a profession), how its health policy positions are perceived by legislators and regulators, and most importantly how they are viewed by patients and prospective patients—the ultimate consumers of their services. Lest we forget, it was also not that long ago when the image of cardiothoracic surgery was not so rosy (see declining numbers of residency applications, William Hurt in “The Doctor,” etc.).

In furtherance of its image, not to mention its organizational mission for which “the highest quality patient care” is the endgame, the Society recently began to address a number of broad social issues that have significance for the well-being of the specialty. STS action in three such arenas started with important member surveys: on diversity and inclusion, on opioid use in cardiothoracic surgical procedures (see page 2), and on gender bias and sexual harassment. While some of our members might deem such issues as counterintuitive—or even inappropriate—for focus by an organization such as ours, STS is not alone among national medical specialty societies in taking an active interest in these topics; a specialty society that is sensitive to cultural norms and alert to its own culture serves its public image, reflects well on its members, and is emblematic of the STS core value of professionalism. To that end, this column is both a thank you note to those who have participated in these surveys and a plea for the time and attention of all our readers for participation in our future surveys of this nature. You will be hearing much more on all of these fronts.

One final comment about image that you’re likely to hear consistently from public relations professionals: the image that one seeks to cultivate must be authentic or it will lack credibility. Thus, astute readers of this space will note that the photographic image accompanying this column no longer reflects the 40-something-year-old me, but rather the 60-something-year-old me, thanks largely to the public shaming to which I was subjected by then-First Vice President Keith Naunheim prior to our 2018 Annual Meeting. This updated headshot is provided to enhance my own credibility (“if he’s misleading us about what he looks like, who knows if he’s otherwise misleading us?”) and as a commercial for a terrific innovation introduced by STS Director of Marketing and Communications Natalie Boden on the exhibition floor in Fort Lauderdale. If you did not take advantage of this free opportunity at our 2018 Annual Meeting, please be assured that we will repeat it next year in San Diego; I encourage you to stop by. In fact, you can consider your free headshot an STS return on your membership investment, to the benefit of your image.