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Effective Health Communication

 As a faculty member, I taught a healthcare communications course. The students would walk in and say, "This class is going to be easy, because how hard can health communication be?" One of the many lessons we have learned from the pandemic is that health communication, especially effective health communication, is not easy. In fact, many healthcare experts say we have developed a form of miscommunication so monumental that we have created another problem of pandemic proportions. We have created an infodemic

In public health and in other forms of health care, we look at health indicators or underlying factors that cause disease to determine how to treat it. So, how do we go about treating the infodemic

1. Follow the KISS philosophy. My high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Dieken, used to tell us he followed the KISS philosophy, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Even though we were all pretty sure that Mr. Dieken had the skills and the knowledge to probably build an atomic bomb, he was in a small midwestern town teaching a bunch of smart high school students chemistry and physics. He was such a good teacher that I remembered all of that through undergrad, even though I only took one chemistry course, to my post-baccalaureate days where I took several chemistry courses. Why did I remember it? Because he took complex ideas and explained them in ways that high school students could understand. Oh, and he assigned a ton of homework to make sure we knew how to do it. 

With many health topics, the information is being explained at a level too high for the average person to understand. I have read articles that discussed inflammation of the olfactory nerve causing asomnia and another addressing the cytokine versus bradykinin components of the coronavirus. These articles read like something out of my chemistry or anatomy and physiology textbooks or journal articles written for medical professionals. I have to admit, that even for me, someone who has an advanced degree in public health and who has worked in the healthcare industry for almost 25 years, these articles can be really confusing and also a real snooze-fest. 

Let's be honest, the average person does not know what cytokine means or what bradykinin is or how they are even different. They also do not know what asomnia is. Telling someone to just "Google it" doesn't do the trick, either, because the definitions online are not that simple, either. We need to break down complex thoughts and ideas and tell them to people in ways that they can understand. 

2. Get Your Story Straight. One of the biggest issues we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a part of the infodemic for decades. Before reporting the news, reporters need to get their stories straight. I often would use this example when explaining the news or reports to my students. Imagine you have a paper due, and you need to get it in by the due date. You do all the research and write it up and hand it in at 4:00 pm because it's due at 5:00 pm. When you get home, you are going through your stack of papers or you start researching for another paper and you find something. That something would have totally changed the meaning of what you wrote in your first paper. Now, with the news and social media, imagine that is happening every hour of the day. Every channel is in a rush to get the story out, so much so that they don't always get the story right the first time. By the time the story has been corrected, the incorrect information has been disseminated through word of mouth or social media. Basically, our society, social media, and the media are playing the game "Telephone" with public health information and news. Except the caveat is that whoever started the game didn't have it right in the first place.

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay 

3. Value The Experts. I am going to confess right now that one of my biggest frustrations in regard to the pandemic is the devaluation of experts and education. I know it seems cool to tell people who have advanced degrees that they don't know anything. First of all, that baffles me when close to half of our population has some form of college education and over 90% of our country has at least a high school education. Clearly, our country values education in some regard. Second, the people who are studying and working in public health are not idiots. However, telling someone they don't know what they are talking about is a great defensive statement when the receiver doesn't understand the message. What the people are really saying is, "You are making me feel like an idiot because you aren't explaining this to me properly. So, I'm going to say you don't know what you are talking about." However, in order to even begin to get the experts to get their opinions out, their opinions have to be valued. Many news reporters do not have a background in public health or even healthcare for that matter. They are trying to explain concepts they barely understand and are creating a lot of confusion in the process. 

Public health is a relatively small field and prior to the pandemic wasn't that understood or well-known. I can't tell you how many times I have been asked, "What is public health?" Moreover, we already have a complex healthcare system. Let's stop pretending that is a surprise and stop telling people it is complex. There is no way it is going to be less complex because there are so many components that makeup one person's health and so many different healthcare entities that take part in the treatment process. Instead, let's start valuing each contributor's expertise in the system. Would you take your car to your child's second-grade teacher and ask her how to fix it instead of your friend who is a mechanic? No. Then, why would you ask or even expect your child's second-grade teacher to know more about healthcare issues or the pandemic than public health experts, doctors, nurses, scientists, or researchers? That brings me to the final point.

4. Educate And Increase Public Health Literacy.  We have known in public health for a long time, at least 20 years if not more, that we need to do a better job of getting the public health message to the public. We need to increase public health literacy in this country. How many times before the pandemic did you hear about the CDC on the news unless there was a food recall or maybe a measles outbreak that was being investigated? By the way, that investigation was called contact tracing, something that the media has made sound new but isn't. I wonder how many people heard of contract tracing before the coronavirus pandemic. Even more interesting, a lot of the measures taken during the pandemic happened years ago with the swine flu and avian flu epidemics, yet the population acted like it was something new. Public health functions in our society often through the back door without anyone ever really noticing it or seeing it. We need to educate people on what public health really does and all the intricate parts of our society that it comprises. We also need to deliver that message in a way that people can understand. When we educate people about public health and increase their public health literacy, then we can begin again.