SPH Reaches Out
Millions of Americans are familiar with the hit television
drama ER, a hospital-based program depicting life in an urban
hospital emergency room. This year ER began its third season with
a public health partner: The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and
Along with local NBC affiliate WBAL-TV, Hopkins is producing a 90-second program companion segment that shows and tells viewers how to avoid ending up in an emergency room. Currently, the segment airs sometime during the 11 o'clock news immediately following the ER broadcast. The segment is available through the network to affiliates nationwide.
The segment, aptly named "Following ER," is the brainchild of Alan Langlieb, an instructor of health policy and management and director of The Boosters Project. Last year The Boosters Project--with support from Smith Kline Beecham and the Chesapeake Health Plan Foundation--brought public television's "Barney" to the School of Public Health to teach safety tips to pre-schoolers. That effort is an example of Langlieb's desire to use the power of television to deliver preventive health information to a wide range of adults.
"Each year, many deaths could be prevented by changes in the individual's behavior," Langlieb says. "People just don't know some of the most basic steps to help save their lives. I want them to have that information."
After months of working with NBC, and ultimately meeting with director Steven Spielberg--whose company, SKG/Dreamworks, produces ER--Langlieb hammered out an agreement between the network and the School of Public Health. The agreement guarantees that the school will have access to advance information about the content of each week's show to aid in producing the segment.
Each "Following ER" segment is tailored to address the situation viewers have just seen on the program. When ER dramatized children trapped in a burning house, "Following ER" promoted smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and the stop-drop-and-roll method of extinguishing flames.
An episode on teens and sexually transmitted diseases prompted a "Following ER" that focused on ways to communicate effectively with adolescents in hope of keeping them from contracting STDs.
After a Halloween show in which a child was hit by a car, a "Following ER" segment stressed the importance of a child's wearing reflective strips and carrying a flashlight at night.
Each piece is carefully constructed to include enough generic content to make it appropriate for NBC affiliates outside the Baltimore market.
"We try to format each segment so that a local station can take the middle part of the piece without having the identifiers at the beginning and the end," says Lisbeth Pet-tengill, director of public affairs at the School of Public Health. NBC affiliate management reports that "Following ER" is one of the local shows most requested by its affiliates.
Each "Following ER" segment includes both an interview with an appropriate researcher or doctor from the Hopkins community and, to illustrate the message, a striking visual. In addition, the school's Office of Public Affairs produces a "Following ER" Web page--now accessible only through WBAL-TV--and a recording for telephone callers.
"We draw on the expertise of the researcher, and reach out to other sources so that viewers can find a full list of resources without doing any work, Pettengill says.
The Web page and the interactive telephone line were part of Langlieb's original concept of a "full service" information segment. "I wanted the most powerful delivery systems I could harness," he says. "The visual impact is terrific, but for follow-up I wanted both the computer network and the telephone line."
The Web page expands the message that viewers get from watching "Following ER." For instance, in the segment on crossing the street safely at night, the Web page instructed viewers on how to apply reflective tape to their children's clothing and what time of day most pedestrian accidents occur (the hour right after sunset).
In addition, the Web page references other Web sites, phone numbers or organizations with additional information. Often, the Web sites and the telephone line direct viewers to support organizations such as the House of Ruth or the Epilepsy Foundation. Eventually, the Web page will appear on the School of Public Health Web site.
"We want people to know that the information they see has been assembled and approved by Johns Hopkins faculty," Pettengill says.
Other changes are in store as well. Langlieb wants to find funding to both upgrade the segment and keep it going as long as ER stays on the air.
"My dream is to have 'Following ER' have the same look, the same imprint as ER," Langlieb says.
With proposal in hand, he has approached both corporate sponsors and foundations. "The potential for the segment is enormous," Langlieb adds. "Not only can audiences learn how to keep themselves out of the emergency room, but public health researchers can also use the segment as a way to understand how people digest and use information. This is what preventive medicine is all about."
The "Following ER" Web site can be found at http://WBALTV.com. The interactive phone line is available by dialing 1-800-893-3000, code 1110.
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