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Amy Campbell, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E., Honored for Excellence in Medical Communication

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Amy Campbell, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E., has been awarded the 2012 Will Solimene Award for Excellence in Medical Communication for her article on probiotic and prebiotics for Diabetes Self-Management, a magazine geared for people with diabetes.

For over 20 years, Amy has been helping people understand how to eat healthfully—as an educator at the Deaconess before it merged with Beth Israel, and then at Joslin where she started focusing on diabetes.

And during that time, she has brought her expertise out of the classroom to broader audiences as a health communicator writing for blogs and magazines, and co-authoring books on nutrition. One of those books, 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, won the 2000 Will Solimene Award.

Here, she talks about her experiences as a writer, and gives advice to aspiring communicators.

What’s the most difficult part of trying to communicate to the public?

I think the most difficult part for me, and I see this with other educators that I coerce into writing, is streamlining everything that we know. We just have so much information in our heads about diabetes So my tendency is to try to write everything I know about a particular topic and it’s just too much.

It’s really a challenge for me, and I see it with other people too, to narrow down to the most important pieces of information that the consumer needs to know that will help them. And sometimes it’s really hard because it seems like everything is important.

So what’s the most rewarding part of what you do?

I love getting feedback, good and bad. Fortunately, knock on wood, it’s been mostly positive. And actually, that article that I submitted for this award was on probiotics and prebiotics. And the reason I decided to submit it was that people told me how helpful it was for them.

When people say “oh this has really helped me, thank you so much for clarifying a confusing topic or helping me make sense of things,” just the fact that I’ve helped somebody, whether it’s a consumer or another health care professional, that’s really rewarding. Of course, I want to write with clarity and I want to help people cutthrough all the red tape and all the misinformation that’s out there on so many topics.

On the topic of misinformation, what do you think health communicators could do better?

I think gathering facts and really making sure that the information that you  are communicating is credible. I’ve heard and seen horror stories about people who just go to untrustworthy websites for their information. And unfortunately you have to weed through so much junk on the internet. And sometimes even just using Wikipedia as a crutch for information, and it is wrong, or it’s slightly inaccurate—it makes me cringe.

Before you start writing and communicating, you have to do your own homework. And sometimes it means going on to a professional site like PubMed and weeding through some of the tedious research articles. But I think you need to do that to make sure that it is truly accurate and not get caught up in the hype that’s so prevalent on the internet.

You bring up “the hype;” it seems like there are fads in health communication, like all publications jump on “this new piece of research says this!” So what do you think is important for health communicators to keep in mind when there are these fads?

I think it’s really easy to get caught up in that, particularly when it’s in a magazine. And a lot of those articles, I should say, are written by credible health communicators,  including dietitians. . But  when you see those fad stories, the news flashes on juice fasts and things like that, it’s easy to get caught up in “oh, I’ll write about that!” And then when you really stop to do your research, as any good writer should do, it’s like “oh, there’s not a whole lot to say about it.” Or “gee, I don’t want to recommend this,” or “maybe I write about it from a different approach.”

Again, I it goes back to doing your research and doing your homework and not getting so caught up in the latest fad or jumping on the bandwagon just because something is so trendy. Or if it is really trendy, I think the job of us as educators or writers is to take a more critical look at it and debunk some of the misconceptions, and point those things out to consumers.

A lot of what you do is blog work. Do you notice a different type of interaction on the internet than you do when you’re talking to somebody in person?

Actually, it’s very similar. I think because when I interact with people, I try to keep things not so formal, more conversational in other words. I try to use that same approach or tone in my blog work. The nice thing about writing for a blog is I can impart a little bit of my own experience.

For example, last week I wrote a blog about hamburgers because May is “National Hamburger Month.” And sometimes I like to let people know that just because I’m a dietitian, I don’t always make the healthiest choices and sometimes I really like a juicy hamburger.

So that’s the kind of stuff that I can share on a blog or I can share with patients. I can say “you know, I like hamburgers too, but here’s how we can make it healthier.” So that’s what I do with blogging.

Your career has spanned the Internet Revolution. How would you say the advent of internet writing and blogging has changed the way people interact with each other and interact with health professionals?

I mean, I gripe or complain about all the misinformation on the internet, but I do think that it’s a great tool because it helps people converse with each other better.

So even myself, because I’m a patient, I have doctors, I like to look things up on the internet and, like many people,  say “I think I have the latest disease!” But being able to do that lets me converse or communicate with my health care providers more easily.

And I think that’s true for people who come to Joslin. A lot of them do their homework, a lot of them read articles or blogs on the internet. And sometimes it’s, again, not always credible information, but that’s okay. It gets a dialogue going. People can say “I saw this new meter on such and such a website. What do you think about it?” That’s great because it helps us all really talk with the patients and get at what they’re most interested in or what they’re most concerned about.

That’s really our job. It’s not our agenda, when they come in, even though I may think “I want to talk about fiber today.” But if you, as the patient, want to talk about something totally different, that’s great. That’s what we want.

So I think the internet has enabled our patients to do that better.

Anything else you want to add?

I just want to encourage people to not be afraid to write or to communicate and to keep at it. Because a lot of people ask “what does it take to become a good writer?” And for me, I don’t think I have a magic secret or formula. In fact, a nurse recently asked me, “how do you write?” And I said “you just have to write every day, about something. It doesn’t matter what. Whether you keep your own journal, or whether you respond to questions on the internet or write every week for a blog.” And it helps when someone reads your work and edits you. It keeps you striving to become better all the time.

The more you do it, the better you get at it.