National Capital Chapter

How to Get a Patient to Talk: Lessons in Health Care PR

By Aaron Cohen, President, Aaron Cohen PR LLC

“Norma Smith was diagnosed with stage-three cancer in December.” – Fresno Bee

Photo credit: John Walker and The Fresno Bee

An anecdotal lede like that is rhetorical device meant to grab a reader by the lapels and demand they keep reading. According to Carmen George of the Fresno Bee, Norma is important because she can “connect people’s compelling personal stories to larger issues.”

To me, as a media relations consultant, people like Norma are the difference between press release pickups and agenda-setting coverage. Earning coverage like this requires sensitivity, patience, and skill.

Getting Norma’s story published is how a journalist explains the life-changing decisions of policymakers and businesses.

It’s the same drill when a Des Moines Register looks at how an Iowa corn farmer’s market is affected by trade policy decisions or how a head shop owner in Massachusetts is impacted by a new e-cigarette crackdown.

“The real challenge in writing a policy story is getting people to read it. If I can focus a story on a real human being who’s been impacted by the policy in question, it automatically becomes more engaging and meaningful — and dramatically more impactful, too,” says Lev Facher, reporter for Stat News, which covers the life sciences industry.

To reporters like Facher, real people resources are the Holy Grail of journalism for three reasons:

  • Real people humanize dry government or academic data, and are great at, “engaging readers on an emotional, intimate level to help them care more about what they are reading,” said George.
  • They provide an important layer of credibility to a story that might have just an antagonist and a protagonist.
  • They demonstrate a cause and effect relationship.

A dramatic example is Sheri Fink’s moving New York Times Magazine, post-Hurricane Harvey cover story about Casey Dills-Dailey. Casey was sent home from the hospital without medicine crucial to her health. When Harvey struck, her health deteriorated. She later died.

Casey’s widower Wayne, and his two sons, allowed Fink “to accompany them through the difficult days after Casey’s death in the hopes that telling her story might help others,” according to a Times Insider account of how the magazine story was reported.

Altruism like Wayne’s, is often what leads medical patients sign health privacy forms and allow journalists into their homes at the most vulnerable and sensitive times of their lives.

Fink told me she discovered Wayne and Casey without the help of a publicist, but stories like that and Norma’s are there, if you know how and where to look. To Terry DeMio, a Pulitzer Prize winning Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, it’s essential to good storytelling. “People are indispensable in a good narrative,” she said.

Here are a few steps to creating a narrative towards getting that groundbreaking placement:

  • Understand how a policy, a report, a piece of state or federal legislation will impact individuals in a negative way, and focus on the negative – happy news doesn’t usually sell papers!
  • Identify an individual, or individuals effected by a bill or a natural disaster, etc.
  • If a medical patient is involved, get the provider to have privacy waiver forms signed to stay legal.
  • Interview the person and make them comfortable with the alien process of an encounter with a journalist.
  • Don’t overly message-train a real person. They’re supposed to sound real, remember?
  • Act as the person’s agent and appointment secretary, like they were your client and protect the patient’s time and health.
  • Do follow-up work with a reporter and treat them like they were your client or boss.

There was no way the Fresno Bee or any daily newspaper in the United States was going to report on the arcane practices of the health care system’s middlemen, known as pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) without a Norma Smith. It’s too dry and, to many readers, just plain boring.

For the Community Oncology Alliance, we tapped into a Fresno oncology practice and found Norma, a plain-speaking, stage three blood cancer patient who felt shafted by a PBM.

Carmen George liked the story, interviewed Norma about how a PBM delayed the cancer medicine her oncologist had prescribed, and published a blockbuster that was a sensation on the internet, stirred a reaction from the Fresno congressman and an explanation from the PBM in question.

Norma wasn’t quoted for her knowledge of Prior Authorizations or Direct and Indirect Remuneration Fees. Washington Post health care reporter Lenny Bernstein says, “stories profit from quotes from the people who are going through these situations, whether they are mental illness, a hurricane, war, or an election.”

Here’s why Carmen George’s story in the Fresno Bee profited from Norma’s central role. Norma said, “I’m a human being. I’m not a used car. I have feelings. I’m a person. I want to live. I want to spend time with my grandchildren. I want to quilt. I want to do things. I want to live.”

About the Author
Aaron Cohen has owned and operated Aaron Cohen PR since 2014, and has been a health care PR specialist for a decade. In addition to media relations, messaging and media training services for clients, Aaron offers a training course to teach organizations how to start new, or improve existing, earned media programs. Aaron has been in communications for more than three decades, having worked in a succession of PR firms and as a Washington- based radio journalist. For more, visit