Feb 7, 2021
Amidst the damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been given a potent tool that, if properly harnessed, could help us communicate more effectively about everything in public health.
For effective communication, the very first thing we need to do is create a connection with our audience. For that, metaphors and shared experience are two of our most effective tools. These, however, are hard to come by and typically must be created anew for every audience. It’s rare that we have a shared experience that touches everyone in a direct and visceral way. A shared experience that due to its sheer scope and severity, forces politicians, business leaders, and other key decision makers through a crash course on public health concepts like contract tracing, mass testing, vaccine development and deployment, health access and disparities, public health data infrastructure, non-pharmaceutical interventions, and many more. For public health and emergency preparedness communicators, prior to 2020 at least, this would have been a pipe dream. Yet here we are.
The pandemic has taken so much away, but as with any catastrophe, buried in the ashes and rubble, if you care to look for it, you will find opportunity. That is what today’s discussion is all about.
As a college student in the 2000s, Vanessa Lamers studied education and environmental science. Supplementing her academics, she also worked in Willamette University’s security office and helped with emergency response and preparedness on campus. During that time, she observed the emergency response efforts to major environmental catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
Later, graduate studies lead her to Yale University where she continued to explore sustainability and environmental science, public health, and infectious disease. At the time, SARS and MERS provided real-world examples of the types of threats Vanessa wanted to help prepare us for. She tells us that “seeing all that happen in real-time and making those ties and realizing that, hey, I want to be one of the people that's helping prevent these disasters.”
Vanessa’s unique combination of expertise in environmental science, public health, and infectious disease led to opportunities to hone her skills in Haiti and Zimbabwe. There Vanessa learned that, even with very limited resources, you can still drive amazing health outcomes. Similar to Richard Heinzl’s observations in Episode #10, Vanessa realized that the strategic application of the tools you do have, combined with a hands-on, get out in the community approach, can be extremely effective. Vanessa tells us that they deployed community health workers to go door-to-door, seek out the most vulnerable people in the communities and figure out how to take care of them. “There’s no need to recreate the wheel”, Vanessa adds, because public health efforts that lack resources often provide “great wrap-around services, building a community around the people who need it.” This approach, of course, is based on meeting people where they are, literally, and making a connection.
Another important lesson came to Vanessa while she worked at the Yale University Art Gallery. There, she led educational tours of the gallery for everyone from 3rd graders in the New Haven Public School to Yale Medical and master’s in public health (MPH) students. The goal was to strengthen visual acuity, a skill that can be very useful in all forms of communication. Vanessa describes it this way, “This skill of visual acuity. How do you look at something? What do you see? What pops out at you? What do you notice? Why are you noticing that first? Why didn't you notice this other thing and the painting? How do you then describe it to the other people that are in your group in terms that they're going to understand? How do you build a shared experience among a group of people when you're looking at the same?”. This experience allowed Vanessa to explore and strengthen her grasp of communication and connections in a variety of new ways.
The varied experiences on Vanessa’s journey helped her to understand the importance of connection and the power of shared experience. And it was this understanding that helped her see “the big idea” we came together to discuss. It was another fortuitous occurrence where a lead poisoning audit in Milwaukee (being conducted by Vanessa and team at the Public Health Foundation), began before the pandemic and wrapped-up when were deep in the crisis. Vanessa explains “Pre-COVID I was really struggling to find what a shared experience would be, what metaphor I could use to explain some of the challenges that we were seeing”, but after months of the pandemic “all of these officials had now, unfortunately for them, had to build a full understanding of public health.”
The shared experience and accompanying metaphors are very powerful and create the opportunity to say “you know how this was difficult with COVID. It's going to be difficult with lead poisoning.” And this might be data collection, contacting patients for follow-up, contact tracing, or a dozen other complex concepts that all of us now have at least a basic understanding of. This helps your audience create a mental picture to work with (tie-in visual acuity), and greatly increases the chance for connection, shared understanding, and progress.
This was a nuanced conversation that explores, in a variety of ways, how to make your public health communication more effective. It’s a skill that we should all strive to constantly improve, and we’re certain everyone who listens will find something of value.
Vanessa Lamers is the Assistant Director of Performance Management and Quality Improvement at the Public Health Foundation (PHF). She develops and leads programming to build the capacity of state, local, tribal, and territorial health departments and provides technical assistance and training around quality improvement, performance management, and accreditation preparation and maintenance. Ms. Lamers manages and supports a wide array of public health projects related to infectious disease and immunization, environmental health, substance abuse and misuse, and the social determinants of health.
Prior to joining PHF in 2015, Ms. Lamers worked at the consulting firm Fresh Advantage on issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act and Community Health Needs Assessment Implementation. She also served as a Research Assistant with the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale and worked with the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Ms. Lamers holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Oregon as well as a Master of Public Health and Master of Environmental Science, both from Yale University.
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The Public Health Foundation (PHF), a private, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Washington, DC, improves public health and population health practice to support healthier communities. Since 1970, PHF has developed effective resources, tools, information, and training for health agencies, organizations, and individuals to help improve performance and community health outcomes.
PHF is an independent, non-membership organization, governed by an 11-member Board of Directors composed of two state health officers, two local public health officers, one local board of health member, and six individuals from academic, private sector, and other public health agency settings.
Public health systems need access to data and applied public health research in order to make evidence-based policy decisions, strengthen their infrastructure, and improve their performance. To help build this science base, PHF:
In addition to the reports discussed above, PHF offers resources through its online store, the Learning Resource Center, its online learning management system, TRAIN, the Council on Linkages Between Academia and Public Health Practice, and the Public Health Improvement Resource Center.
One of PHF's specialties is assisting health departments in performance improvement. A number of tools and programs are available including technical assistance services, the Public Health Memory Jogger II, and the National Public Health Performance Standards Program.
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