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On medical-update spin: Plain honesty remains the best policy

After nearly two weeks of conflicting reports about President Trump’s COVID-19 condition and his apparent incredible recovery, I’ve had cause to recall the years I spent as a medical-center spokesperson.

White House physician Dr. Sean Conley is shown flanked by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center doctors as he arrived to speak to reporters on President Donald Trump's condition on October 5.
White House physician Dr. Sean Conley is shown flanked by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center doctors as he arrived to speak to reporters on President Donald Trump's condition on October 5.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

After nearly two weeks of (wildly/mildly, I’ll pick wildly) conflicting reports about President Trump’s COVID-19 condition and his apparent incredible recovery, I’ve had cause to recall the nearly 13 years I spent as a spokesperson for the University of Minnesota medical center.

While the job was probably the most personally rewarding I’ve had, I have had numerous occasions in the years since I left to review much of what I experienced at the university. In particular, Affordable Care Act battles have brought back hard memories of families struggling to find insurance coverage or raise money to pay for expensive procedures, often the organ and bone marrow transplants that did not start to become covered by most insurance plans until the mid-1990s. I’ve also thought about the (not frequent, but not nonexistent) instances when I witnessed less than completely honest communication between hospital/medical staff and journalists.

A variety of constraints

And yes, spokespeople such as myself were among those who weren’t always completely forthright. Though in my case (and probably that of many others in similar positions, in all sorts of organizations, all over the world), I have to say that was mostly because people such as myself weren’t always, always given the straight story. Or weren’t permitted to tell the straight story. And the trouble was, being just a spokesperson and not a lawyer or doctor, I didn’t always know enough about what went on behind legal and medical doors to know all of the actual facts. I know I’m not the only one who has wondered if the president’s doctors and staff felt they were in a similarly constrained situation.

When I heard the president’s doctors and his chief of staff and press secretary talk the way they did — with obfuscation, evasion and omission attempts that would be challenged by champion high school debaters — I thought about a small minority of the doctors I dealt with, doctors representing different disciplines who either didn’t want to make any comments at all for journalists or were expressing optimism that belonged in the realm of purely wishful thinking. I remember one telling me that if such “slight” positive thinking were not voiced on “rare” occasions, a whole lot of trouble might ensue with a whole lot of interested parties, including grantmakers, hospital administrators and lawyers, insurance companies, and patient families. Another doctor who was not at the university very long once said intense competition from other medical centers required the shiniest, most telegenic spin legally possible.

photo of article author
Photo by Aaron Fahrmann
Mary Stanik
Then there were the doctors who were almost too honest, including one who announced to a large group of reporters that a child was most certainly going to die that day. The child’s parents were not shocked by the news. But they were shocked that a physician would announce as much in such a plain way. Then there were parents who wanted doctors to give me only the most positive news about their child, because to say otherwise might cancel the fundraising they needed to pay their child’s medical bills. More than one ashen-faced parent told me, “No one wants to give money to a kid who isn’t going to make it.”  They weren’t wrong, but nearly all of the doctors said they’d rather say nothing than put false polish on real misery.

To be fair (and honest), I knew of no patient cases where such media comment, omission, enhancement or bluntness affected the quality of care given the patient or the patient’s eventual medical outcome. As it was, I left the university when troubles hit a number of faculty members in the mid-1990s, troubles that could have jeopardized my ability to avoid legal trouble were I to remain. Much less obtain a job elsewhere. And I wanted to be able to tell the straight story.

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Not speaking for a president

But neither I nor any of the patients, doctors and lawyers I dealt with was speaking for a president. None was talking about someone whose illness could seriously affect national security and other facets of governance. We were talking about human beings, much loved human beings who often were in very delicate states. But we weren’t talking about someone responsible for a whole nation of much loved human beings.

Were I to counsel the president’s doctors and staff, knowing full well that they’d tell me to go to hell, I’d tell them that too much ill-thought spin can discombobulate as well as injure. If one is ever called to deliver legal testimony, lawyers can cost a great deal. And different jobs might be difficult to obtain after participating in such spin cycles.

And that plain honesty, even in a reality television world, even in the White House, remains the best policy.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, recently moved from St. Paul to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”

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