Spotlight on a Spokesperson – Dr. Howard Mell

Dr Howard Mell Spotlight SpokespersonDr. Howard Mell joined ACEP when he was still in medical school. He is the medical director of the emergency department at Lake West Hospital in Willoughby, Ohio.  He also is the EMS Medical Director for the Lake Health System in Concord, Ohio. In that capacity he oversees 14 fire departments, two private ambulance services, three tactical units, two industrial brigades, and a waterpark first aid team. He was a full time paramedic and firefighter before and during college. Dr. Mell is from Chicago and completed his residency in emergency medicine at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., in 2007. He is board certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine.

With so many other physicians choosing to shy away from the media, you embrace it. Why do you think it’s important to communicate with the public and to be an ACEP spokesperson?  

Dr. Mell: “I see it as an opportunity to give back a little to ACEP. The organization has given me so much, in terms of training, networking and occupational support. I like being able to help out in return. Also, communicating with the public is part and parcel of being an emergency physician. The emergency department is where public health meets medicine. We treat communities, not just individual patients, and the media is a great way to get that information out.”

Can you think of a few highlights as an ACEP spokesperson (an interview you did, a newspaper you were quoted in, etc.) that stand out in your mind?

Dr. Mell: “I think the most memorable was definitely a quote that I gave to an Associated Press reporter after a report on energy drinks was released. I told the (true) story of a patient who had used them with some side effects.  The story gets picked up by roughly 400 media outlets. The next thing I know, I'm getting letters from beverage industry "scientists" and lawyers demanding I retract the statement.” (Side note: No legal action was ever taken.)

Have you ever had an experience with the media that in your view did not go as well as you had hoped?  If so, what happened and what would you have liked to have seen done differently?

Dr. Mell: “Before I was an ACEP spokesperson, I did an interview for the Today Show. It was an on-camera interview following the gunman attack on Virginia Tech. A reporter had found the work I had done on Columbine and pegged me as an expert. I was being interviewed by one of the show’s reporters.  But what they wanted was precise tactical information (How does a team respond? Where do they go first? Do they search victims for guns, bombs, etc.? What if the shooter is injured?). I spent the whole interview repeating ‘I can't speak to specific tactics, nor can I comment on the response to an ongoing crisis.’ I wish that I would have defined the scope of their questions and angle of their story beforehand. I would have saved time and tape. Needless to say, it didn't make it on the air.”

Medical information often can be difficult for the layperson to understand.  How do you communicate with a reporter to help them understand – so that ultimately the public will understand?  

 Dr. Mell: “I think that communicating with reporters is a lot like communicating with patients, in that you need to feel out what their levels of understanding are beforehand, and then tailor your discussion accordingly. For the types of stories we usually respond to, this is generally easy — how do you handle overcrowding, what are the risks in a disaster, how many mentally ill patients do you see?  The answers aren't usually difficult, and most health reporters have a good working knowledge of their subjects already.”

Given your experience, what advice would you give to a physician who is interesting in joining ACEP’s Spokespersons’ Network? 

Dr. Mell: “Just do it. It is fun and your kids will get a big kick out of seeing your name in the paper (at least mine do!)”

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