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Public relations offers just what doctor ordered

By Brian J. O'Connor

Dr. Wayne Bizer doesn't mind cutting open a patient's eye and inserting an innovative silicon lens. What the Broward County ophthalmologist does feel squeamish about is advertising the procedure.

"Most doctors have been schooled in our training to shun that kind of thing," said Bizer, 43. You wouldn't expect to see a policeman or a priest or a rabbi advertise in the paper, and physicians just never did that kind of thing."

Now, some physicians are doing that kind of thing, with advertising having been legalized for doctors and other medical professionals by a 1974 Supreme Court ruling. But many doctors continue to feel that advertising is unprofessional, unseemly or the sign of a quack.

Still, to remain competitive against the rising tide of health plans, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), clinics and doctors are looking for a way to get the public's attention.

Enter Sheila Danzig and Maxine Davis founders of Innovative Communications. The Plantation-based public relations firm helps doctors avoid advertising among the late-night TV ads for Franco's Pizza and Boxcar Willie's record anthologies by putting them in the less commercial spotlight of news programs and articles.

Recently, Danzig and Davis turned their hand to telling medical professionals how they can manage their own public relations with a book called A Better Practice Through Free Press Coverage. The $100 manual has been out for two months, with six copies already sold, said the two partners.

Danzig and Davis have changed Shakespeare's admonition to "Physician, promote thy self." Says Danzig: "A doctor with the time and a good staff, a spouse or a son or a daughter, can see success."

"Doctors are much more newsworthy than they think they are," she added, citing a number of examples from the firm's 2 1/2 years of serving more than two dozen medical clients.

Some of their newsworthy clients have included an ophthalmologist who applies permanent tattoo-like eyeliner, a mobile ultrasound testing service, a nuclear magnetic spinal scanning center, and an optometrist who specializes in treating athletes Davis' own husband, Robert.

"Then there was the time the chiropractor made an adjustment on the radio," Danzig recalled, after the talk show host had complained of lower back pain.

Danzig and Davis started Innovative Communications as a general PR firm. Danzig, 38, the mother of two boys, had worked for a direct mail and advertising firm in Brooklyn, and studied journalism in college. Davis, also 38, and the mother of three, had a background in art and journalism in college and had worked as a teacher.

After doing some work for Davis' husband, the duo realized the need for medical public relations. "We realized the need for doctors to have the exposure," Davis said. "The public should be informed about new things going on in the doctor's office."

In addition to articles and talk shows, Davis explained, they also help doctors publish newsletters for patients and the community surrounding their practice, and encourage doctors to help in charitable organizations and drives.

Both women emphasize to physicians that the idea is not to steal patients from other doctors, but to publicize new or unfamiliar treatments to the public, including people who are not currently seeing doctors.

Nonetheless, Danzig said, some doctors find the idea of a public relations campaign as distasteful as advertising, while Davis noted some of their clients would feel scandalized if it were known they had hired a PR firm.

"Even though doctors can advertise, they don't want to," Davis continued. "Doctors need to realize their moral obligation to inform the public."

Informing doctors of that is the tactic Davis and Danzig are using to market their new book, by speaking at conventions and other gatherings of medical professionals. They also plan to conduct some direct mail promotion of the book.

Their kind of publicity is much more effective than paid advertising, Davis noted. "Advertising just takes something away. A doctor is a professional, he saves lives."

While Davis and Danzig note that such publicity is good for bringing in new patients and building a practice, they added that it also helps a doctor keep patients, something Bizer said he experienced in using publicity.

"In demonstrating to the patients you have now, it has a more positive effect of showing that you are keeping up with new developments in your field," he said.

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