American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

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PRESIDENT'S COLUMN

The Internist of Today campaign:educating patients—and helping you

From the April 2000 ACP-ASIM Observer, copyright © 2000 by the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine.

Back in the 1990s, when managed care health plans began forcing patients to choose physicians from a list of approved providers, many of us sensed trouble.

Becoming a "list doctor" was a new and unsettling experience for most internists. In the past, we had usually relied on referrals from satisfied patients and physicians to build our practices. Almost overnight, however, many patients were forced to choose a primary care physician not through word of mouth but by picking a name out of a hat.

Worse yet, internists were not the only ones with their names in the hat, vying for the attention of prospective patients. General practitioners, family physicians and ob-gyns were all on the list, trying to get the attention of patients.

When the College surveyed our members about the topic, we learned that most internists thought their patients did not know the difference between internal medicine, general practice and family practice. Our members also told us that we needed to differentiate internists from other providers, and nearly 90% wanted the College to conduct a public awareness campaign.

When we surveyed consumers, we confirmed what our members already suspected. Nearly half of the consumers surveyed thought that internists, family physicians and general practitioners were one and the same. A quarter of those respondents believed that the word "internist" referred to a doctor who looks only at internal organs. The biggest surprise, though, came when almost two-thirds of the consumers surveyed said that family practice was best known for treating and listening to patients.

Educating the public

This information made it clear that internists had an identity problem. As a result, the "Doctors of Internal Medicine. Doctors for Adults" public awareness campaign was born. The campaign launched in spring 1997 with support from the American Board of Internal Medicine, with two goals: to increase public awareness of internists' unique suitability to deliver primary care to adults and to help patients make an informed decision when selecting a doctor.

The College selected baby boomers as the target audience because they represent such a large prospective patient population. Our first print ad debuted in the June 23, 1997, issue of Time magazine. It featured a NASA photo of the first moonwalk with the caption, "If you saw this happen live, it's time to see an internist."

The College started by educating baby boomers about the health risks of turning 40. We told the undeniable truth that doctors of internal medicine are uniquely qualified to help baby boomers stay well as they grow older and to identify and control the silent threats that can rob people of quality of life, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and colon cancer. We also created patient brochures emphasizing the subspecialties of internal medicine that physicians could distribute to patients.

The following year, we targeted obesity and the relationship between an unhealthy body mass index and chronic disease. In 1999, our core message focused on fatigue, sleep apnea and depression, as well as on the College's recent guidelines on thyroid screening.

Our message has reached millions of consumers through articles in a number of publications and media interviews with College members. As a spokesperson for the campaign, I have worked with reporters from CNN, the "Today" show, MSNBC, Time and Ladies Home Journal, to name a few. The more our messages appear on television and in newspapers and magazines, the more the public will learn about the unique skills of internists and the specialty of internal medicine.

This year, our public education campaign will help support the College's clinical theme: antibiotic resistance. The campaign will also call attention to recently developed College guidelines on the treatment of sinusitis and depression, two common problems that our patient population faces. And we will place a special emphasis on communicating the unique ability of internists to provide primary care to women, who represent more than half the patient population. (For more about the College's clinical theme, see "College launches new clinical theme to help combat antibiotic resistance," next page.)

How you can get involved

While media exposure has helped the College spread its message, we also depend on the involvement of individual internists. Our brochure, "Internal Medicine: Doctors for Adults, Where We Fit in Today's Primary Care Picture," and other educational pieces are easy to read and suitable for display in waiting rooms. (You can download the campaign's patient education materials at www.doctorsforadults.com.)

We also have a speaker's kit to help you talk to groups in your community about the importance of internal medicine, as well as related patient and public education topics. We also have badges, T-shirts, mugs and color posters of our magazine ads, suitable for framing, all of which can be ordered from the College. At this year's Annual Session, we will even have a special program to help members incorporate aspects of the campaign into their daily practice. I urge members to attend this important presentation.

The awareness campaign is working. We are heightening the profile of internists and encouraging the public to select an internist for care. This program has further instilled a sense of pride in what we do and who we are. In one sentence, we can explain to the average citizen what it means to be an internist: We are doctors of internal medicine—doctors for adults—the adult health experts.

We have come a long way, but we will not be finished until we have fully communicated to the public the importance of internists: the sacred trust we hold in taking care of our patients, the relationships we have built with their families and the differences we make in patients' lives. That is the magic of internal medicine.

—Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, FACP

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