The last few weeks before the Annual Meeting are an increasingly frenzied period for ASCO staff and for your president. Orchestrating the meeting of 30,000 oncology professionals requires a great deal of work by staff. There is also, inevitably, some last minute reshuffling of the scientific program, for a variety of reasons. And there are the media tours.
The media tours involve ASCO’s senior leadership (including the current president and president-elect and the chief executive officer) travelling to major media outlets and oncology specialty media groups to discuss the annual program. Some of the ones I have been to this year include CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg, ABC, NBC and CBS as well as Oncology Times, and other colleagues have met with other outlets, both print and television (and online: everyone has an online presence these days). I’ve also spoken with reporters from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Mike Link (our President-Elect) and I just spent two days in New York, shepherded around by Kristin Ludwig, Communications director extraordinaire for ASCO.
We also hold a media “Presscast” (this was Wednesday of this week) where we roll out some of the abstracts that our Communications Committee consider both scientifically interesting and newsworthy (not always the same thing). Communications Committee Chair Mark Kris of Memorial and I led a Presscast that introduced five of our Annual Meeting’s speakers to the press, followed by a Q & A session. This in turn has led to a barrage of stories that are now populating the papers and airways: you may have seen some of them.
We are a very public society. Part of our responsibility to our patients involves informing them of advances in oncology, and the best way to inform involves reaching out to the news media. I must say, having done this the last two years, that these interactions are almost always cordial. even enjoyable. The reporters and producers I have spoken to are a smart bunch. Many have been following our field for years, have a strong science background, and are well versed in the important issues we face.
They also tend to be a pretty ethical group as well, interested in the public good as they see it. They care about the cost of medical care, and access issues, and about the magnitude of the effects we trumpet. Maybe I am naive, but just about every one I have met take great care in getting the story right. And for them getting the story right often involves telling a story, typically one measuring the effect of a new drug or diagnostic intervention on a real patient. The public mind has tended to merge loudmouth pundits with working reporters, the editorial page and the talk show with the front page. This is unfortunate, because working reporters (in every outlet, whether associated with the Left, Right, or Center of the political spectrum) are principally concerned with the truth. I will not say that they are agenda-free (who is?) but they are as a group scrupulous in their scientific reporting.
I had a good many interesting experiences on the tour, but Bloomberg News was probably the most fun. Bloomberg rents terminals to stockbrokers for $20,000 a year, and these terminals are a veritable cornucopia of data. They showed me all of the information available to the average stockbroker by taking me through a few examples related to oncology drugs. These include, in addition to trial information from ClinicalTrials.gov and several other sources, in depth reports on emerging trends in drug development. They download ASCO abstracts to their system almost as soon as we release them. They tell you exactly how many vials of a drug have been sold over time. I wanted to run out and buy a Bloomberg box: data envy is a horrible thing, as any techie will tell you.
As often occurs when I have such an experience, I wonder why medicine is so far behind business in the information game, why Bloomberg knows more about PARP inhibitors than I do, and knows more about health economics than my hospital administrator. FedEx can track a package across country on a minute-by-minute basis, and Bloomberg can shovel information into your lap in gargantuan quantity. But if I want to get medical records across town from one hospital to the next, the most efficient way typically involves someone carrying them, Pony Express-style. As we move into the genomic era, an era dominated by the digital transformation of huge bodies of complex data, we need to keep up with and learn from the Bloomberg’s and the FedEx’s of the world. We will need real-time bioinformatics for the medical masses, interoperability of systems, decision support networks tied in to rapidly evolving guidelines seamlessly integrated with quality measures that are effortlessly extracted from electronic health records.
I’ll be talking about some of these things in my Presidential Address at the Annual Meeting in Chicago, and I hope I will see you there. But in the meantime I’ll be doing another media tour.