Use media to confront drug abuse

ED physicians and nurses have a responsibility to address social issues such as drug abuse, argues Larry L. Alexander, MD, FACEP, an ED physician at Baylor Healthcare Systems in Dallas, TX. "I think any ED physician recognizes trends in many areas of social life in this country. We get so caught up in work and our own lives, it’s often hard to go beyond that," he says. "But we are the perfect people to do this, because we see people at their best and worst. What we have to say carries a lot of weight with people."

When heroin use led to the deaths of several young people in the suburban community of Plano, TX, Alexander felt compelled to take action. "Last summer, one young man was dropped off by two others who left without giving any information whatsoever, and it made me angry," he recalls. "It took us an hour or so after he died to find out his name. I woke up the parents at 3:17 in the morning to have them come to the ED. This one hit me harder than the others."

The incident and others like it led Alexander to begin lecturing on drug abuse at local schools. "What led me to get involved was realizing that people were in denial about this issue," he explains. "People get complacent and say it can’t happen here. Then, when we have a death or overdose in the area, they say, well it wasn’t my kid.’ It shouldn’t have to take a child dying to make you address this problem. And what if the next one is your kid?"

Alexander regularly gives one-hour presentations at schools for grades kindergarten through 12. "I tell stories about what happens in the ED to illustrate my point, then give the kids 30 minutes to ask me questions. In doing that, I found that kids are often misinformed about drugs," he says. "Parents tend to lecture at their kids instead of talking with their kids, kids talk back to their parents, and the lines of communication break down."

ED staff have credibility with both young people and their parents, Alexander notes. "When people have made a bad decision, the bad outcome winds up in the ED and we have to try to fix it," he says. "Young people accept this coming from me instead of their parents, teacher, or priest because I am not here to lecture them. I am the doctor who tries to save your life if you wind up here. I tell them, I don’t want any more of you coming through my ED. I deal with this every day, sometimes more than once a day."

Drug use is widespread in the suburbs, and ED physicians are on the front lines confronting the aftermath, Alexander stresses. "It’s not really the inner city kids that are doing it now. It’s the white middle class, two-parent family suburban kids for the most part. Heroin use has become a problem in Cleveland, Iowa, Denver, and Portland, OR. When you ask kids why they do it, most of them can’t tell you. What’s bizarre is that many are school leaders. On the outside, they look like the perfect kids, but inside they feel empty."

Along with lecuturing at schools, Alexander began speaking to reporters about the issue. "I gave my first media interview last summer to a local newspaper because I’d taken care of some of the overdoses, and the city wasn’t giving out any information," he explains. "The Dallas newspaper picked up on the story, which hit the national wire service and got syndicated everywhere."

Since Alexander was the only physician quoted in the article, the national reporters sought him out for comment. "Hard Copy and Inside Edition showed up at the hospital and interviewed me, and local stations then reported on my talks," he says. "Channel 1 in Los Angeles, an educational channel that goes to most school districts in the country, did a one-hour documentary."

Over the next few months, "Dateline," "MTV," "Montel Williams," and "CNN Talk Back Live" all contacted Alexander to be interviewed about drug abuse, he notes. "CBS, ABC, and NBC have all called for sound bites. It’s funny how you give one interview, and so many things grow from that," he says. "I now have my own hour-long talk radio show in Dallas, which invites listeners to call and ask questions. I discuss a drug of the week, such as marijuana, heroin, or alcohol."

To educate the community via news media, you need to communicate in soundbites, says Alexander. "That is what you have to do to get your message across, because that is what sells news," he says. "I’ll tell a story about a kid who came in with a heroin overdose. Within that is a take-home message in a one- or two-sentence soundbite. I keep up on current literature so I can provide statistics, if needed, to hammer in certain points. But mainly I focus on personal experience, because that is what tugs the heart strings and gets people thinking."

Some reporters tried to sensationalize the story by implying a cover-up, Alexander notes. "Reporters have come in with their own agenda, trying to get me to speak on behalf of the hospital," he explains. "I explain that the hospital has one official view, while my view is that I’ve taken care of these patients. But the hospital follows the letter of the law, and unless someone dies it is not reported from a legal standpoint. As long as I know my legal standing is protected, I will give my viewpoint."

Resist playing into a reporter’s angle by sticking to your message, says Alexander. "They may come in wanting to sensationalize the story, but that is missing the whole point. Sometimes you can actually bring them around to your side," he explains. "They are there to interview you, but you have just as much right to steer the conversation as much as they do. If you control your responses, no matter which comments they choose to use, your message comes across and you win regardless."