The responsibility of public health people to communicate

Public Health is a broad field, and finding ones place in the palette of colours that public health consists of is tricky. I have been around many corners ranging from international health, health statistics and information systems to planning of care, health policy and governance. And lately public health communication. I don’t know if I have found my shelf, actually I kind of hope not, but I must say that the communication side of public health is crawling under my skin. Perhaps because it seems such a natural part of public health and in many ways a neglected part.

As I blogged about earlier this month, I have been reading “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin. It’s a book that takes you through a historical journey from the invention of vaccines to its successes, failures and not least the role communication played/plays in both. Ranging from the communication done by experts, the media to laypeople and celebrities. The book is well written and based on a great amount of research. I finished reading it yesterday and despite having enjoyed it a lot it also left me with a slightly discouraged feeling. It is a perfect example of how panic can grab a bunch of worried parents, about how ‘Mommy instinct’ becomes superior to scientific research and how the media at times can put aside rationale in order to follow the conflict, the emotional story and forget the premises of scientific research which makes giving absolute ‘yes or no’ answers extremely difficult. My discouragement was very much: Well what do we do about this, how can we take on mommy instincts and heart breaking stories and scientists who do not apply to scientific standards? Risk is difficult to communicate, communicating all the things we don’t know makes risk seem even more scary. So what do we communicate, how much do we communicate and in what way? And where does public health communication specifically fit into all of this?

I then realised that public health communication is perhaps exactly where some of the communication in the whole vaccine story went wrong. The media attention was taken over by people who took their starting point in individuals – in their own nine patients, their own child or grandchild or their own gut feeling. Even though organisations like the CDC, whose focus is population health, of course did and are doing their best to communicate the benefits of vaccines both to individuals and societies and draws attention to what the majority of the research findings is telling, I believe it is to some extend is still the failure of public health communication that may be to blame here. As I was taught from the very first day in my very first class in Public Health, Public health is exactly about the population perspective and we should be obliged to be much better at communicating this. Public health people should be the holders of that expertise – it is not the responsibility of the medical doctors or the statisticians or sociologists. We should be better at communicating risks and what they mean and be better at explaining what it is we don’t know. Most of public health research, whether it is done by numbers or by qualitative methods is about finding trends, causation in large groups etc that we can utilise to ensure or improve the wellbeing of the individual as well as the broader population. And we need to be better at communicating this. Not only to the public but also across scientific disciplines, across levels of society from decision makers to funders of health initiatives etc.

Taking my own public health training as my reference, I must admit, that I was not given much guidance on the communication side of public health. I was told that my expertise is that I have an insight into many disciplines and can bridge these disciplines, but how actually to carry out this bridging function I wasn’t given tools for. I hope I can be able to ‘catch up’ on this skill and that I can share my experiences with others. To a start I recommend people to read “The Panic Virus” and learn what the consequences can be if we don’t pay attention to the communication side of public health sciences.


Viral public health science communication

My new bedtime reading is made of dramatic stuff. It is about children with dangerously high fevers, about parents fearing for the life of their offspring, and about healthy maids milking cows. It is about the enthusiastic joy of getting closer to immortality and the birth of fears so great that people turn their backs on what their parents just a decade earlier glorified to the skies. It’s about vaccines and infectious diseases!

At Science Online 2012, I was so fortunate to win a copy of “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin, and with a long stopover in Chicago on my way back to Copenhagen this was a perfect way to pass time and close Scio12 with a well written story about the role of public health science communication! I have not yet finished the book, but will most likely return with a separate blog post on it when I’m done. There is lots of interesting stuff in that book.

I will however just share a poster or infographic that I came across the other day. Actually, it kind of summarizes a big part of “The Panic Virus” or is at least a response to the panic which, among other things, a false report of a link between vaccines and autism created among parents. A panic that still has a strong take on many people today. The poster is created by Medicalcodingcareerguide.com and uses data on vaccine and disease by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

I like the poster for several reasons. Firstly, I find the layout very appealing. There is something very retro about it. The yellow colour, the choice of font and the style of the images. Secondly, I like that it plays with the format of a poster. It doesn’t use a conventional format, but plays with the proportion. Thus, it is long and thin (a little bit like a syringe) and it tells a continues story. You can jump in anywhere, but you can also let the poster tell you a story from beginning to end. Thirdly, the numbers are to the point. No excess information or complicated graphs. It gets the message across without being overly complicated, but not naively simple either. That goes for the text too. There isn’t a fear of using latin words, but it is still informative. And then again, it is just a poster/infographic so it can’t contain all the complexity. I still like it however.

One element of critic could be that the two crossing syringes in the title could be interpreted as a crossing out of the word vaccination – which is definitely not the intention by the designers I assume.

Voila the poster, an example of public health science communication:

Medical Coding Career Guide
Created by: Medical Coding Career Guide