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An Eye Toward Improving Public Health Communications in Times of Crisis and Beyond

October 5, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of public health communication in guiding policy and influencing individual behavior. A recent Grand Rounds discussion explored the obstacles and opportunities around promoting effective, accessible public health messaging in an ever more challenging environment. (Watch a video of the event below.)

Dean Jelani Cobb of the Columbia Journalism School moderated the discussion with speakers Salim Abdool Karim, MS ‘88, Columbia Mailman CAPRISA Professor of Global Health in Epidemiology, and Perri Peltz, DrPH ’23, an Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist. Columbia Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried introduced the event.

Especially in the early days of the pandemic, health systems, governmental institutions, and media organizations all struggled to adapt to the uncertain environment, which, according to Dean Cobb, shook the public's faith in institutional expertise. “We have to examine the places in which we have failed as institutions,” he said, “to take a hard look at the failures of journalism, to take a hard look at the failures of health and public health, of our medical industries.”

Rampant misinformation has been a major challenge to public health, said Abdool Karim. One surprising source of misinformation about treatments has been doctors, whom he called its “main promotors.” Peltz added that social media has allowed primary care physicians to interface directly with the public, and as a result, “there is very little room for journalists to question people, to challenge people, to ask the questions that really matter.” To combat this problem, she explained that public health communication must be “part of the plan from the very beginning.” 

A more foundational issue is the lack of awareness of public health and its achievements such as life expectancy and disease prevention. According to Abdool Karim, this lack of awareness explains why public health messaging often doesn’t land in times of crisis. “The actual work of trying to prevent this problem and mitigate its effects is actually done by public health, but it is done out of the public eye,” he explained.

Despite the challenges facing public health communication, Peltz said there is hope in people’s stories and willingness to share their experiences. By leaning into the humanity of these stories, journalists and others can communicate public health information in an engaging and personal manner. Peltz’s first documentary, The Education of Dee Dee Ricks about a public health advocate conveys the story of another woman who could not access breast cancer treatment and eventually passed away from the disease. The documentary focused on the person rather than simply the issue of access to health care. The key, she said, was “finding humanity.”

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