Messages, Media and Getting It Right

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Health Communications in Public Health 

Medical people have our own secret language. Thanks to four years of medical school and three years of residency, I can speak fluently about 5-0 prolene, Bordetella pertussis, and who needs a referral to the nephrologist.

This is very useful for talking to colleagues. When it comes to patients and the general public, though, it’s pretty useless. Sure, some people have medical training, and some just enjoy knowing the terminology. But most people need not only a translation back to plain English, but an explanation of what it all means and why it matters.

Making good translations may be even more important for public health messages. If I don’t match my message to my patient’s knowledge level, I’ve only failed one person. If I get it wrong in a public health message, I’ve confused hundreds, thousands or even millions! Even if I get the language right, I need to figure out how to get people to pay attention, so they won’t overlook my message or ignore it. Often, educating people isn’t enough. I need to give them a reason and motivation to take the right steps for their health. If I hit the wrong note — if I accidentally insult people, scare them unnecessarily or minimize an important risk — my message might even backfire.

Health communication experts help the rest of the public health world get it right. These folks are masters at translating from doctor-speak to plain English. They know how to craft messages for different levels of literacy and for different degrees of understanding about health, medicine, numbers and statistics. They have skills to find out what’s likely to interest their audience, motivate them, frighten them or just plain make them mad. And they know how to find out if their messages are getting through and accomplishing their goals. (There are health communication jobs outside of the public health world, too, but that’s a topic for a different newsletter.)

Health communication is a broad field, with room for lots of specific interests. You might focus on getting information and messages out in ways that people can understand and use. You might combine your skills with social marketing, using techniques from the entertainment and advertising worlds to promote healthy choices and behaviors. You could do public relations, working with media outlets or conveying messages directly to legislators, stakeholders and the general public. You might choose to focus on risk communication, helping a government agency or health department communicate with the public about emergencies and outbreaks. You could join a consulting firm that provides services to other organizations. You could even do research, building up the knowledge base on what works, what doesn’t, and why. Some people specialize in one topic; others work on many different issues, either at one job or over the course of a career.

Like most public health roles, there are a number of paths to a career in health communication. Some people start out as journalists or general communication specialists and gain public health experience along the way. Some begin with other roles in health care or public health, and learn about public health communication when a need arises. In general, though, you’ll be more competitive — and more likely to avoid beginners’ mistakes — if you have specific training. Depending on where you are in your career, you might consider:

  • Pursuing an undergraduate major in health communications, with a focus on public health.

  • Earning a certificate in health communication from a school of public health or affiliated program.

  • Focusing on health communication as part of an MPH degree.

  • Earning a master's degree specifically in health communication.

Want to learn more? Here’s a place to start:

CDC’s Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice

 Did You Know?

The first toothbrush, consisting of Siberian pig hair bristles wired into carved cattle-bone handles, was invented in China in 1498. But tooth brushing didn't become routine in the United States until was enforced on soldiers during World War II.

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