Illustration of a woman with a megaphone and a cloud of symbols, including viruses and masks

How I’m Building Links Between Epidemiology and Health Communication

January 22, 2024

I started my health care journey in India as a dental surgeon. Along the way, there were moments that redirected my path toward epidemiology and health communication. One pivotal encounter involved a 13-year-old grappling with an extreme case of fluorosis—a preventable condition caused by excessive fluoride in water that leads to mottling and erosion in the teeth. As I witnessed her plight, the profound impact of public health and health education became evident. The thought lingered: a simple water treatment could prevent this, or an early dental intervention could have spared a lifetime of dentures.

Headshot of a smiling woman with dark hair

Navjot Buttar

Another watershed moment happened when I witnessed the aftermath of misinformation surrounding a World Health Organization’s (WHO) Rubella vaccine program in my home state of Punjab. False information resulted in violent attacks against health care workers and school principals. It dawned on me that the success of public health messages hinges not merely on their intrinsic merit but significantly on how effectively we communicate them.

With the revelation that good data and evidence alone are insufficient, in 2018, I decided to pursue a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology with a certificate in Health Communication at Columbia Mailman. Little did I know I was charting new territory as no other Epidemiology student had explored this combination. Despite setting this precedent, five years later, only a handful of epidemiology students have recognized the importance of incorporating health communication into their studies.

So why should epidemiologists study health communication? Beyond number-crunching and research publications, our work as public health practitioners extend into managing public health programs and institutions. The path I chose, combining coursework in epidemiology and health communication, equipped me with the dual skills to establish scientific evidence and translate it into a language comprehensible to the public. Courses such as Dissemination and Implementation Science taught by Rachel Shelton and Health Communication taught by Renata Schiavo opened my eyes to the nuanced art of formulating and communicating public health programs with individuals of varying backgrounds.

Drafting a communication program for Zika virus control in Brazil for Dr. Schiavo’s class taught me the necessity of tailoring messages to different population groups based on their roles, stakes, effort required, and health and digital literacy levels. In my first public health role as the COVID-19 Contact Tracing Manager with ICAP at Columbia with Wafaa El-Sadr and Susan Michaels-Strasser, I found this skill combination indispensable. Crafting contact tracing scripts and connecting with patients demanded a seamless fusion of epidemiology and health communication so that I can incorporate COVID-19 epidemiology into the daily life for cases and contacts, making my messages more targeted and convincing. Leveraging epidemiological expertise, I identified challenging subsets within the Columbia community, while my health communication skills helped address their specific circumstances through tailored messaging. This strategic approach enabled judicious use of limited program resources.

I learned that the way I understand and interpret data as an epidemiologist differs from how the community perceives it. As we all experienced during the pandemic, COVID-19 incidence and mortality rates, although critical for epidemiologists, were not enough to sway the masses into wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Success in these arenas requires us to find the language that resonates with the public. In the throes of the COVID-19 crisis, the chasm between public health professionals and the public became stark. Not only did advising people to wear masks and get vaccinated, though rooted in science, fall short of inspiring action, but social media and deepfake technology worsened the flood of health-related misinformation, creating more challenges.

This situation—an overabundance of information, accurate or not, in the digital or physical space, accompanying an acute health event— has been called an infodemic. In this context, it is crucial that public health practitioners be conversant in health communication. Moreover, we need to delve into research on how to treat the infodemic as any other infectious disease—dissecting its trends, understanding its impact on health-related behaviors and the populations at risk, and formulating strategies to counteract its spread.

I earned my MPH in 2020. Today, I am continuing my studies toward a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) degree in Epidemiology with a focus on health communication. The synergy between epidemiology and health communication is not just an academic curiosity for me, but a powerful force to harness to reach my public health dreams. Today, we stand on the brink of a new era in which mastering the art of communicating complex data is as crucial as deciphering it. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the battleground against health-related misinformation remains the next frontier in public health.

Navjot Buttar is a first-year DrPH student in Epidemiology with a research focus on online health misinformation. She received her MPH in Epidemiology with a certificate in Health Communication from Columbia, and her Bachelor of Dental Surgery at Sri Guru Ram Das Institute of Dental Sciences and Research in Amritsar, India.