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Physician, Brand Thyself

When medicine meets the Hollywood PR machine

July 29, 2007|Meghan Daum | Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist for The Times.

Some doctors are just meant to have publicists. For plastic surgeons and dermatologists, for instance, public relations strategies have become as indispensable as sterile gloves. But in a climate of ironhanded managed care and stratospheric malpractice insurance costs, less glamorous specialists such as urologists and even general practitioners are retaining publicists, managers and agents to generate attention--and relying on celebrity patients for the buzz they can bring.

"There is definitely a celebrity grapevine," says Gary Cohan, an internist whose private practice is associated with the Robertson Diagnostic Center in Beverly Hills. "Two of the doctors I work with are the big movie-star doctors. My office looks like the red carpet of the Oscars every day. These are the people who sit in the front row at the Oscars. We have a back door for them in our office, but, honestly, it's usually the B movie stars who use the back door."

There is, of course, some question as to whether we want the people whom we trust with our lives to think in terms of "A-listers" and "B-listers." We like to believe they're too noble for the kind of status consciousness that comes with marketing themselves or attending to celebrities. But as much as we may romanticize the notion of the saintly physician, there's no denying that things have changed in a big way. We've entered an era in which some doctors are becoming celebrities themselves, or at least trying to navigate a system that can look like capitalism run amok.

Cohan, for example, has his own weekly radio program, KABC's "Medical Show With Dr. Gary Cohan." He also maintains a website and a MySpace page.

"A lot of doctors think, 'If I build a practice they will come,' " says Cohan. "But how will people come if they don't know you exist?"

There's a glaring difference between flat-out advertising (such as the podiatrist's park bench placard) and generating attention for yourself and your practice. The American Medical Assn. has no restrictions on physician advertising, only long-standing ethical guidelines that discourage misleading tactics.

But "like everyone else," says L.A.-based gynecologist and women's health author Judith Reichman, "doctors have to make a living. The cost of practicing medicine has gone up. My rent increased 40% last year. Malpractice insurance rates have gone up. But we still have those old ethical guidelines, and in the new world of advertising I think most of us are trying to stay somewhere in the middle."

"The secret is being bigger than your medical practice," says Howard Bragman, founder of the media and public relations agency Fifteen Minutes (whose clients include Robert Rey, a.k.a. Dr. 90210). "If the only money you ever make is doing your medical practice, you're limiting your income. If you can make money selling products or with books, then you become a brand."

There is, admittedly, something a bit uncouth about reducing years of med-school training to a couple of ad slogans. For some of us, the idea of getting a pap smear from a doctor we just saw on television is a little too surreal for comfort.

Still, self-promotion is key for physicians such as Cohan and Reichman, who have stopped accepting insurance for office visits. As a result, they need to make themselves attractive to well-heeled patients who are willing to pay out of pocket. For those growing up in a culture in which advertising is like wallpaper, publicity may become less a matter of physicians selling out and more a sign of physicians taking themselves seriously. Younger generations may hardly bat an eye at the thought of a doctor with a MySpace page.

As for those of us who still rely on the "best doctors" features in magazines, Reichman recalls spotting the name of a doctor in New York Magazine whom she knew to be dead.

Now that guy had a good publicist.

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