Health Communications 101 with Nutrition Communicator, Brett Otis

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Brett Otis, the Communications Project Manager in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They discuss Brett’s work at Harvard Chan on “The Nutrition Source” and the responsibilities of those presenting health information to the public.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Brett’s career path and how he came to work in public health communications 
  • What a day as the Communications Project Manager in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan looks like
  • What “The Nutrition Source” is and what the process of producing this source of information is like 
    • What the department’s motivation in creating this publication was
    • Who this information is for and how the audience has changed over time
  • Tips from Brett on how to consume health information from media
  • Some of the biggest lessons that Brett has learned about communicating public health information
  • What the biggest challenges for individuals working in public health face when trying to communicate public health information
  • The certain health communication challenges that are distinct or more pronounced in the nutrition field compared to other areas of public health 
  • Brett’s observations about public health communication during COVID-19 and what he has seen working well vs. what could be improved
  • Advice from Brett for individuals who might be interested in a similar career
  • Advice from Brett for individuals who might not be working in an explicit health communications role, but who may need to do health communications-type activities as part of their work

Today’s Guest:

Brett O. Otis, ALM, is a Communications Project Manager in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health where he lends strategic support to multiple initiatives, including the department’s primary public-facing website, The Nutrition Source, and annual Healthy Living Guide. He also serves as a key guest lecturer in the MPH course, Nutrition Communication in Practice. Additionally, he is a co-author of Eat Well and Keep Moving (3rd edition, 2016), a school-based nutrition and physical activity program developed for upper-elementary school children. Merging education and training in journalism, health communications, and sustainability, along with professional experience in public health nutrition communications, his work is all about making research accessible and useful to a range of audiences—from policymakers and educators, to the general public.

Featured on the Show:

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Episode Transcript

Brett 0:00
If we don’t have an answer, and people are looking for it, they’re going to find somewhere online. And that might not be a source of quality information. There might be other intended, you know, outcomes of information that’s there. So even if the data is limited, we are going to want to talk about that topic. And say, this is what we know so far. This is where the research is going. This is where it’s currently at, things like that.

Sujani 0:29
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with, Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Welcome, Brett to PH SPOT podcast. So great to have you. And I’m really looking forward to this conversation, because I think you have a background in something that’s very near and dear to my heart. So before we jump into that, thank you for joining me and welcome.

Brett 1:00
Thank you, Sujani, for having me. I’m, I’m excited to chat with you today. And I’ve really been enjoying some of the other podcasts that have come out from PH SPOT.

Sujani 1:08
Yeah, it’s really great. It’s a platform that I was, you know, just telling you right before we hit record that’s been five years in the making. And it’s been possible because of a lot of the public health professionals that have contributed their knowledge and you know, just their journeys and public health, similar to how you’re going to chat with us today. Okay, so the topic of public health communication, as I mentioned, is something that’s just so important and so critical to a lot of fields, but more so our field in public health. And I think we are seeing evidence of that during the pandemic more than ever, I’m curious to know, you know, how did you discover first off public health as a field for you to build your career in? And then maybe we can jump into whether, you know, you had to take an additional step to get into public health communication. But really, how did you discover public health?

Brett 2:00
Yeah, so it was certainly not a straightforward path. I’ve learned that’s the case for so many of us in the field of public health. I actually found a really interesting, I saw a recent LinkedIn poll that you had put out, you know, asking when people became interested in public health, it was like 75%, during university and only 10% during high school. Was that- is that right?

Sujani 2:20
I think, yeah. Something like that. Yeah.

Brett 2:21
You know, that finding is is representative of my experience, certainly in regards to public health. And you know, more specifically the discipline of health communications, sort of looking back, I was always interested in science and biology in high school. But really, at that point, I was only aware of more traditional routes for those fields, such as the medical profession, and I certainly at that point, felt strongest in writing and the arts. So I decided to pursue a major in multimedia journalism at Emerson College here in Boston. It was actually through a freshman year elective Health and Science reporting that I was sort of introduced to Emerson’s health communications program, and I ended up receiving a minor in the field. But in the meantime, you know, throughout my reporting classes, my journalism classes, Boston being the- this medical and health sciences hub that it is, I was fortunately able to focus many of my reporting assignments on you know, so many different health topics, one assignment or experience that really something clicked, I was working on a piece for a Boston Globe internship course. And we were covering Tufts University School of Medicine study that was looking at traffic pollution impacts, and Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, which runs right alongside the- the Mass Pike highway, and it was an audio story. And so I went on a walking tour with the one of the study’s principal investigators, and super with my voice recorder in hand, we walked to the edge of the neighborhood that lined the highway. And he provided this mini course in public health, you know, throwing out terms like community based participatory research and describing these links between environmental exposures such as ultra fine particles, and you know, cardiovascular disease risk. And these were all sort of links and concepts that I hadn’t been exposed to before at that point. And I was fascinated the experience really stuck with me. So after graduation in 2012, I applied to sort of any and all communications based positions at you know, Boston hospitals, startups and health or medical schools, you know, cast a wide net, and I ended up landing a temporary position to help with some web based initiatives in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. And, you know, be remiss not to thank you know, mentors and help along the way, thanks to the support of my supervisor, Dr. Lillian Chung and other department faculty as well as some other folks in the school, our schools, our Prevention Research Center on nutrition and physical activity as well. I was brought on full time and you know, long story short, my role has evolved over the years quite a bit. In the meantime, I went back to school for a master’s degree in sustainability, which, you know, kind of worked well with the work that I do in the department, this idea of food systems and eating for human health, but also in a way that you know, supports the planet’s health and staying within planetary health boundaries. Yeah, long story short, I’m still in the department today. I’m a nutrition communications project manage there.

Sujani 5:05
Wonderful. Yeah, I think that stat you shared, you know, it’s a small sample of our LinkedIn followers. But I think anecdotally as well, that’s kind of the story. I hear from a lot of public health professionals that they accidentally find the field and they ended up building that interest as they explore the field a lot more. And then I think similar to you then go on to get a bit more education to supplement that experience that they’ve, you know, received over the years.

Brett 5:30
Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, I’ve- I’ve heard so many stories, like you’re just saying, it’s kind of fun. And I think it provides a diversity in the field. That’s so important.

Sujani 5:39
So I think you mentioned that you are the nutrition communications project manager with Harvard Chan, can you tell us a bit more about like, what that looks like on a day to day basis for anyone who’s kind of interested in a similar communication type role within an institution of some sort?

Brett 5:56
Sure, yeah. I mean, communications roles tend to be a catch all for many different tasks, wearing many different hats, but I’ll say in general depends sort of where we are in the academic year. And I love it because I get to be involved in so many different projects and initiatives. And it keeps things interesting, it’s always ever changing and kept me engaged. But in short, most of my work is really grounded and making science accessible and useful to a range of audiences. So for example, a project I just wrapped up was the design and layout of our departments Healthy Living Guide, which is a downloadable publication 30 page report that’s filled with tips and resources and research reviews on nutrition and other you know, Healthy Living topics like physical activity and sleep. So I don’t know if there’s a way to link you know, in the show notes or anything like that, but I can provide some links to things like that. And this spring, like I’ve done for the past few years, I’m preparing to guest lecturer and assist with a series of communications modules, and of course, for our master’s of public health and nutrition students. And it’s a really fun course, we work with the students to apply, you know, a topic of their choice to a range of communications outputs, from writing op eds, pitching op eds, doing elevator pitches, mock interviews on camera, so they really kind of get an experience for different communication skill sets. Yeah, so those are some projects throughout the year, but throughout most of the year, much of my effort is really centered around our department’s primary public facing website, which is the nutrition source website.

Sujani 7:19
Yeah, I have that popped open here, which looks wonderful. And I’m gonna have to dig into it a bit more. And maybe we can talk about that in just a little bit. I’m curious because you know, your role as a health communications specialist or manager, I’m sure there’s many, I guess, position titles we can name under this title, you went in with this journalism background, and like the skill set that you developed during I guess, your undergrad, do you see that you required additional skills in order to do this job well, and did you go back to I don’t know, upskill? In any other ways?

Brett 7:54
Yeah. You know, certainly, I would say that the sort of benefits of working in an academic institution with such a focus on learning in general, is that right away, right, from the first day of work, I got to go to seminars, I got to sit in and listen to scientists, and listen to them explain methodology and explain how the study was done and the importance of sample sizes. And you know, what the heck confounding is in a study and all these terms that I wasn’t exposed to any in depth way, in my undergrad training, it was really a crash course in you know, how to understand and navigate the field of science and how studies are done and quality of studies. That was something I really didn’t have the understanding of, and it’s fortunately, something that I got very early on just talking to researchers going to those seminars, there were so many learning opportunities. If I didn’t have that, I think it would have been something I would have needed to seek out in additional formal education or training. But I was fortunate that I sort of was able to sit in and absorb everything I could.

Sujani 9:00
That’s interesting, because you’re speaking about absorbing all of this information related to the content. And I’m thinking somebody else could land in a role like yours with the opposite skills. And what I mean by that is, they would have a background in public health, whether they completed an undergraduate degree or a master’s in public health or Masters of Science, and they want to go into a communication role. And they need to upskill in the areas that you already had training in. So that journalism lens or that ability to communicate, so if you are talking to someone with that sort of skill set, what would you tell them in terms of like the areas that they need to perhaps either go get formal training in or maybe there are other ways to get that skill set- upskilled essentially?

Brett 9:46
Fortunately, or unfortunately, but I think it’s a- it’s a positive in response to this question is that because of the pandemic and because of this laser focus on how public health professionals are having to communicate with uncertainty in this really difficult and challenging time, there has been, at least I’ve seen in our university and others more of a focus on getting public health professionals trained and prepared for communication. And it’s always kind of been there in certain programs, as I mentioned before, I do lectures in that course, all around, you know, communicating to the public with some of the skill sets. But yeah, I would absolutely if someone doesn’t have training, and they’re not at an institution that offers that training, seek out online resources that kind of go through some of these basic skill sets, communicating health messages effectively, getting some experience, translating science to different education levels, getting yourself on camera can be uncomfortable, but it can be really useful. If that’s something you might have to do in your career. There’s not necessarily like an exact course that I would point to, or that I know of, but certainly in a formal education, you can maybe go back and take some classes at a university in a journalism program. But I would just be very focused on getting those skill sets that you think you might need. And definitely ask around. I feel like that’s kind of mentioned early on the public health community seems to be very willing and giving up their time. This is humanitarian work, right? So people are often happy to point you in the right direction or talk about their experiences. It is something I hope that many schools and universities are taking a close look at at this time in terms of offering these important communication skills as part of the required curriculum. It’s always hard to fit more things in- in a course of a curriculum. But as we’ve seen, it’s very important.

Sujani 11:33
Yeah, I think I based on the conversations I’ve had, I haven’t necessarily seen kind of a dedicated course just yet within public health communication. But I have noticed and recognize that a lot of instructors are doing this on their own and either adding assignments of some sort that really challenges the students to think about communicating a research report to various audiences and helping them build the skills that way. So that there has been this shift, at least that I’m recognizing, which is mostly motivated by the instructors themselves.

Brett 12:06
That’s great. It’s encouraging to hear that it’s starting, you know, at that level in some capacity.

Sujani 12:10
I might be putting you on the spot here. But given that you do have an undergraduate degree in journalism, I am going to ask you, like you did say get training in the basic skills of being able to communicate science, what would you say the basic principles of journalism one can kind of take away from you, you know, when you don’t want Google to know what you’re looking at. If you could give them kind of like the basic things that they should look out for, or just search for training in those areas, what is that in terms of journalism?

Brett 12:42
They’re really some, I’d say some basic questions to consider when you’re preparing communication. So let’s start with the most basic question to ask yourself, right, is what are you trying to achieve with your communication? Envision what you’re hoping the outcome will be. So in that thread is think about your single overriding communication objective or in the context of health communications. What’s your single overriding health communication objective? We sometimes call this the SOCO. What’s your SOCO? And it’s, you know, really, what do you want people to take away? If they don’t hear anything else that you have to say, what does that take away? Another question here is, who is the audience? And what do they know? Or what do they need to know first? What context do you need to provide them? We hear this a lot, you know, in journalism training, but you know, it’s beneficial for everyone. Where can you use plain language and cut jargon to make sure that your message is received? Oftentimes, this is a balance, sometimes there’s necessary terminology where it’s appropriate to explain it. But what are the things that could be left out or simplified in a way that connects to your audience? On that topic, how are you framing your message? What are the points that you’re emphasizing? You know, what are you leaving unsaid? How are you delivering that information? What tone are you using to deliver the information and sort of a no on? What are you leaving unsaid? I would say from the journalist side of things, and on the other side of things, a tip is to really think of the question, one question that you would not want to be asked and prepare some sort of answer for it. So maybe it’s a developing situation that you’re communicating about. And there might be a lot of uncertainty, practice how you might respond to that. It’s not an easy process, but it’s some place you don’t want to be caught off guard. It’s not prescriptive. It’s not the only things to think about. I think there’s just some good basic questions to ask yourself. Things I hear a lot from people who are preparing for say an interview is how do you choose what to communicate? You know, if you have a scientific paper with so many different findings, you know, discussion points, takeaways, distilling it concisely can be somewhat intimidating. And so, those tips I mentioned are essential starting points. But there is a framework or tool that I’m happy to share this this tool called the Ladder of Abstraction, and it’s this older concept that basically describes the way that he means think and communicate in varying degrees of abstraction. It’s easier to show visually, but in your head picture a ladder, right has different rungs. And so think of your ideas or your key talking points from your scientific paper, say that you want to communicate are spread throughout those rungs. The question is, how are you organizing them. And so this is where this sort of framework comes into play. So think about the bottom of the ladder, it’s resting on solid ground. So those bottom rungs are filled with concrete ideas. On the other end at the top of the ladder that’s reaching up to the sky. Those are more abstract ideas and concepts. The middle rungs of the ladder are the things that are not entirely concrete, and yet not entirely abstract. So this classic example to illustrate, and it’s a little silly, but it kind of gets to the point. So there’s this counting Bessie, right? And so if you’re going to talk about Bessie, you know, across this ladder of abstraction, you’ve got those concrete details at the bottom of the ladder, and you’re going to work your way up. So at the very bottom, have something super specific, super concrete, like the atoms and the molecules, and the tissue that form Bessie, as a cow. Going up from there, you have a counting Bessie, going up from there, you have cows, and up from their livestock, then maybe farm assets, and then above that assets in general. And then at the very top, and you can probably go further than this, but you have this abstract idea of what wealth is. And so you can see there that it scales from the concrete to the more abstract. And as I mentioned, this is kind of a silly example. But you know, if you’re going to apply it to talking about your scientific topic, for example, having these details mapped out can really be important or helpful for engaging an audience and distilling key points of what you really want to say. Because when we speak as sort of one level of this ladder, whether you’re all the way at the top and the abstract, or all the way at the bottom, and the concrete details in the weeds, it’s known as this dead level abstracting and it results in sort of this unbalanced communication. There’s this example here, you know, say a project manager cites volumes of budget and effort, data, and precision, but really fails to explain what it means they’re stuck at the bottom of the ladder. That’s only concrete. On the flip side of politician proposing some generic legislative reforms, but failing to address how it will impact citizens, then you’re stuck at the top, you’re stuck in the sort of abstract ideas, rather than getting to the major impact which the audience needs to hear audiences need both these concrete details and abstract principles. And you really want to sort of balance your communications between the two. And you know, moving up and down the ladder to make your message more understandable for the audiences at many different levels can be helpful. Climbing down the ladder, you use things like providing real world examples, using sensor language, being specific, telling some stories or anecdotes, photographs or images, state data and statistics. And if you’re stuck in the weeds, you might want to climb back up by posing and answering the question of why is this important, you know, giving that deeper meaning behind those facts and data, providing that big picture, appeal to shared ideals, revealing sort of the lesson in all of it. So that’s just kind of a very quick run through. And again, I’m happy to provide a link that I think does a nice job explaining this. But it’s- this is a tool that we use in one of the classes that I mentioned. And we actually put the scientific topic to the test, you know, in this framework. And you know, I found that useful personally, I learned this in one of those kinds of communications courses. I’ve heard feedback from others that it’s been useful as well.

Sujani 18:37
Yeah, I think it visually nicely kind of shows you exactly where each piece of information sits and kind of linking it back to those three to four essential skills that you mentioned, in terms of like setting your objective, knowing who your audience is, ensuring that plain language is incorporated in your communication is the idea then based on I guess, you know, the objective and the audience, you would try to spend more time either higher up on the ladder or lower down because, you know, I’m assuming if you’re talking to your peers, who are scientists in the same field as you, they may already have that knowledge that takes up the top part of the ladder, and they’re more interested in the nuances of your research, for example. Whereas if you’re talking to someone in the public that has no idea what you’re doing in terms of your research, they’re more interested in the sole white. So if your objective is to communicate to members of the public, then you’re going to spend more time kind of pulling together information that probably occupies more of the top parts of the ladder. Is that how you can-

Brett 19:43
Absolutely you- you, you got it. You got it right away. That’s awesome. So I don’t I’m gonna give you the credit there because I don’t think there was any way that I explained it that clearly. That was terrific.

Sujani 19:53
Okay, good. No, I was just kind of like trying to visualize what you’re saying and link it back to the skill set. Okay, great. So I think that’s a really, really good way to look at it. And so for anyone wanting to explore further, just help communication get started in that, I think definitely look for training related to setting objectives and how to identify your audience, how to write in plain language. And then I think what you said about how you frame your communication piece is so critical, because there are things that are unsaid that need to somehow be addressed one way or another. So thank you for that. And then we’ll definitely link up the resource that you mentioned about the ladder analogy.

Brett 20:33
Wonderful. And and if I could offer another resource on framing, there’s a terrific online resource called the FrameWorks Institute, I believe it’s called. And they do a deep dive into framing communications for a variety of public health topics. And it’s I think, mostly all free resources. They might even have some courses or training. So I can send the link, but I think it’s definitely worthwhile checking out.

Sujani 20:58
Yeah, I mean, this is additional investment into your career is I’ve seen a few universities also offer this like journalism in public health type certification or mini degree of some sort. But you know, if you are invested in a career, within public health and journalism, there are those options as well.

Brett 21:20
Yes, terrific.

Sujani 21:22
All right. So going back to your main publication that you’re responsible for within your role, which is a nutrition source. Could you tell us a bit about the I don’t know if you’re familiar with the birth of it, and how the process has been producing content for the nutrition source? And yeah, just a little bit more about your work there?

Brett 21:40
Yeah, absolutely. So true to its name, the nutrition source really just aims to be this collection of science based information and guidance for healthy living. That’s a website that has over 300 pages and counting, ranging from in depth articles and research summaries to things like recipes, and, you know, practical tips to help facilitate translation of evidence into practice. And for some background, with the support of the department’s faculty. The website was actually launched all the way back in 2001, fire department’s director of health promotion and communication, Dr. Lillian Chung, and she still is our site’s editorial director. And it’s really amazing, because I mean, think of how different the internet was in 2001 versus today, what’s really incredible, it’s how it’s, it’s just maintained its presence online. So over the years, you know, it has grown to become one of the most visited websites within the School of Public Health, citing some Google Analytics here, the site’s over 14 million pageviews, among nearly 9 million users last year, from all over the world, most of these users really do come through just searches on nutrition topics or questions. So we reach a variety of audiences that range from educators and students to, you know, potentially policymakers, as well, as journalists who are gathering, you know, background on a nutrition topic, it’s a really interesting project to work on, you know, to see even how it’s evolved while I’ve been working on it. And our pages really do range from like these high level takeaways to in depth reviews that incorporate a variety of studies, you know, all the research contexts on a given topic.

Sujani 23:17
So is the website, the nutrition source, is that mainly fueled by the research that takes place within the university? Or does it incorporate additional pieces of evidence?

Brett 23:28
Right, so it’s, it’s not limited by any means to research just from the university or from the department, for example, carbohydrates as a topic, one of the more visited pages on the site, you know, we go through different outcomes, a sound, you know, the evidence around carbohydrates, and that’s taking into full literature searches on the topic and the scientific body of evidence. So it’s not limited by any means. It’s, it’s really trying to synthesize and summarize and pull the best possible evidence on any given topic.

Sujani 23:57
So yeah, if we do take carbohydrates as an example of a page that you have up there, or maybe more recent posts that you may have worked on, what does that process look like? Do you go and pick a topic? And then you sit together and work on it? Or is it more independent work? Maybe you could tell us how it goes from ideation to maybe publication on the nutrition source.

Brett 24:19
As I mentioned, because it’s been around for so long, so many topics are covered. And on one hand, the process is making sure that pages are updated if a high quality new study comes out, that needs to be added to that body of evidence for that topic. So it’s updating pages in a timely manner. Everything on the site is reviewed by faculty members or invited guests. So it goes through different stages of review after it’s updated or written. You know, we’re a very small but mighty team. We have myself our editorial director Lillian Chung, and we also have dietitian science writer on staff who is doing the bulk of you know, writing the articles, especially on you know, more nutrition specific topics like micronutrients and macronutrients, but she’s a terrific writer, and she’s been on our staff for multiple years. So it’s a- it’s definitely a team effort. And then in terms of the like ideation process for new topics, we’re really just following the conversation, what we’re seeing, you know, pop up online as confusing or trending topics, maybe something’s been publicized, that’s, you know, generating some confusion, as I mentioned, and we’ll want to kind of look at that topic, answer people’s questions that we’re seeing floating around online, we receive a lot of questions just through email, it’s important to make the distinction we’re not offering personal guidance or personal dietary guidance. This is public health, after all, it’s more general principles and approaches. But we are kind of just tuned in to the ongoing conversation around different topics and trying to at least have an answer on the site, even if data is limited. I think that the one thing that we see time and time again, with our information space, is that if we don’t have an answer, and people are looking for it, they’re going to find somewhere online, where they’re going to have their question answered. And that might not be a source of quality information. There might be other intended, you know, outcomes of information that’s there. So even if the data is limited, we are going to want to talk about that topic and say, this is what we know so far. This is where the research is going. This is where it’s currently at, things like that.

Sujani 26:30
I’m glad you mentioned that I talked about this in another podcast episode, were so easy to find stuff online, that it’s almost a responsibility that public health professionals have to be able to put good quality information out on the web, because people are going to go looking and we just hope that they find the good quality articles or pieces of information rather than the ones that may be you know, misinformation that’s just kind of like produced and delivered in a visually appealing way. And people are more attracted to it just naturally. And if we can bump up kind of these more authoritative pages like the Harvard pages, it’s, it’s beneficial to us as a society. Okay, so you know, you’ve been in this role for about nine years. So I’m curious to hear what your biggest lessons learns have been about communicating health information to various audiences.

Brett 27:25
Yeah, how much- How much time do we have here? Yeah, it’s, it’s a great question. And well, let me give you my- my pre pandemic answer, and then we’ll touch on maybe some current thoughts. A few years back, I recall, there was a survey, I think it was in Health Affairs. Basically, it said that even though people supported the ideas of public health, they really didn’t know who does public health work or how the work gets done. It couldn’t name the professionals responsible. You know, overall, people had a difficult time describing what public health even was, right? And in practice, this disconnect was cited as sort of a hinderance for things like public health partnerships, and support for important policies, you know, this tracks, right, because an overarching challenge that public health faces is it’s kind of a branding problem is that it’s largely invisible when it’s working well, so people enjoy clean air, clean water, safe food, all without really thinking about the role that public health has played or is playing at that time. You know, another thing is that public health looks ahead, it was focusing on upstream causes and investment in the prevention of things going wrong. And you know, despite public health practitioners focusing on this long game, our societal approaches, policies, funding and actions, you know, tend to be more short sighted or reactive. So we, you know, end up pouring so many resources into triaging and treating when a problem arises. So that was a, I guess, a relatively buttoned up answer from maybe my- my current thoughts are now because obviously, like everything else, COVID-19 has shaken things up. To put it lightly. For one, public health practitioners are certainly not invisible at this time, right? Over the last few years, people have been introduced to the functions of public health workers in society beyond, you know, physicians and nurses and even beyond like local boards of health or health commissioners, you know, people know about epidemiologists, immunologist, Dr. Fauci is a household name. It’s really been amazing to see this in such a short time, but this introduction has not come with unanimous support of public health work, reading reports about public health workers being threatened for issuing mastery mandates or contact tracing. It doesn’t paint a positive outlook and the elephant in the room here is that all the while public health is dealing with this infodemic alongside the pandemic so false and misleading information is nothing new, but we’ve seen how misinformation and disinformation causes confusion lead to risky behaviors such as mistrust and health authorities and in many ways undermines the public health response. And so we’re still in the thick of it in many ways. And it’s remains to be seen, I think what impacts all of this will have the field and years to come. But I read this morning, so it’s maybe a bit of a silver lining. But I’ll- I’ll mention this Wired article that I read on the topic of researchers that are tracking language and understanding of science over the course of the pandemic. And in a few different studies and surveys, they found that there’s been an increase in scientific literacy. So if we think back to early on in the pandemic, those terms like flatten the curve quickly became part of our collective conversation. And beyond just language, they know that this is a quote, not only are people increasing their scientific vocabularies, but they’re also learning important concepts from biology and public health, students are showing more interest in the roles of scientists and health workers, the messy trial and error of the pandemic is showing non scientists what the process of science is like. And we may all be better off for it. Take what you will, from that, but maybe a bit of a silver lining on this topic that we’re discussing today.

Sujani 31:12
Yeah, no, absolutely. And are you seeing, you know, with your work and nutrition communication, that things have shifted, because of the pandemic, I don’t know if you’ve written anything kind of directly tied to the COVID 19 pandemic, but just in general, are you seeing that the way you’re presenting information has changed, or the way that your team is working on the nutrition sources change at all?

Brett 31:35
We’ve definitely increased the amount of specifics and in depth discussions on the scientific literature. So I think what we tried to do on the nutrition source, and they take it back is that we are trying to provide information to people with different levels of interest, potentially, right? So we always want to provide sort of like the high level answers, the key takeaways, you know, if you have five minutes or less, three minutes or less, what can you take away from this topic if you’ve searched it, but for people who really want, you know more information, we want to provide that to them. So you know, if you’ve on the site, you’ll see, on most pages, these sort of drop down buttons, where, you know, there’ll be the full summary of the literature on any given health outcome or disease outcome. We mentioned carbohydrates before, but like refined carbohydrates and type two diabetes, and we cite all the data and all the references are there. They’re linked, so people can go to the scientific literature, if they so choose. And so I think it really is not just assuming that people don’t want that information, or they can’t handle that information. I think that if we didn’t include that, then again, people might be searching on their own, what resource are they finding? So I think we’ve really made it an effort before the pandemic, but, you know, certainly it’s our goal to continue is making sure that in depth information is provided for people who want to access it.

Sujani 32:56
Yeah, that’s an interesting observation, especially, you know, tying it back to that Wired article, if we are going to see more informed readers of our public health work, then they are going to expect to perhaps dig into the evidence a bit more, and making that available to them is helping you as it help communicators send the message home. So that’s very interesting to hear. So two questions, similar topic around, you know, advice for individuals who may be exploring some sort of a career that’s related to health communication, you know, there’s the traditional role where you, yourself are the lead communicator for a team. And I think you mentioned early on that that role itself can look very differently. I’m curious to hear what sort of advice that you may have for someone just in the early phases of exploring that career. But then also advice for individuals who say, perhaps are an epidemiologist or they are a researcher, but there is a component of health communication in their role. And I think we talked a little bit about how they can get up skilled in some of the basic principles of communication. But I’m curious to hear, you know, some parting words of wisdom or advice that you may have for individuals early on in their career, whether they want to take career directly in the communication space, or they have a different role they are pursuing but there will definitely be a component of communication in their job.

Brett 34:24
Let me start with nutrition first, because I think there’s just some key points I want to make for anyone involved in nutrition communications that we might not have touched on, but I think are really important to remember. Nutrition is such an interesting place to communicate because food is so personal, right? It’s wrapped up in our values, our emotions, experiences, traditions at so many levels, the individual level, family level, community level and cultural level. And yeah, as a communicator, and for anybody looking to go into nutrition, communications or the field of nutrition, it’s, it’s in some ways a blessing and a curse. If food gets attention, it draws interest. It gets people engaged in conversation. But you know, we can see sometimes in the media, how this might be taken advantage of. This is not representative of all media or all publications. But it’s sort of something that’s a trend. So I mean, just think for a minute how many news headlines around food and nutrition you’ve seen in your lifetime. And you know how many times you’ve seen that familiar trope, you know, everything you know, about x food is wrong, whether it be pigs, coffee, you name it. So as media consumers, we get this. It’s a term I’ve heard before, it’s like this nutrition whiplash, right? It’s one thing and then it’s the other and it’s exhausting for, you know, a news consumer. So certainly, from a media perspective, it’s great at getting people’s attention and getting clicks on articles, you know, headlines, by their nature have to be short and sweet. But all too often we see that, you know, there’s this oversimplification of study findings. And, as I mentioned, that characteristic of all reporting, and in some ways, and in some publications, I feel like I’ve seen, you know, anecdotally that this is improved in some ways. But what’s so often missing from the rest of the reporting is context, right? There’s usually a little information about how you know, the new results of a study fit in with the existing evidence on the topic. So I mentioned before, that’s something we tried to do on nutrition sources provide no context, right? And nutrition is difficult to study, there’s a lot of nuance there. These are free living populations of people, can’t lock them in a room and feed any specific foods over a long period of time. So you have to rely on a whole bunch of different type of evidence, you know, to build quality guidance, studies with large number of participants, high follow up rates with good compliance, validated tools, you know, all these different things, you’re making sure you’re interpreting the data carefully and taking into account confounders and making sure that results are reproducible or possible. And it’s jargony. Right? Like I just- I just throw out a whole bunch of jargon. But that’s it, right? And scientific evidence in general is cumulative and continually evolving. So there are going to be some contradictions among studies that occur. But what I think the takeaway we hope to share is that rarely, if ever, is like a nutrition study so groundbreaking, that it deserves these flashing headlines telling us to forget everything we previously knew about this food or that food, it’s much more of a cumulative process. And, again, as you know, public health communicators a challenge with nutrition is that even though it has this relatable or personal hook, and there’s information we can put out there that help individual people with their habits, it’s not individualized guidance, and it’s not trying to be, you know, there’s no one size fits all diet, and no overall, it’s general practices and principles that are intended to help. And then the final point here that I’ll mention, which is you know, true across public health, in general, is that the factors that influence behavior and outcomes are so far beyond the individual level, daily reality in terms of nutrition for so many people is that there’s this constant exposure and access to foods with little or no nutritional benefit, like sugary beverages, not to mention, like the marketing of these foods, and, you know, healthier options often come at a higher cost. So public health nutrition, can’t really be left out of communications is, you know, in large part, considering and reminding that these are social environmental factors that are at play. And you know, identifying policies upstream that can have a positive health impact is super important. And healthy eating guidance can really only go so far, when our environments aren’t making the healthy choice, the easy and affordable choice. So those are my sort of takeaways on nutrition. But you know, public health in general, if people are interested in their career, and sort of just based on my experiences is that our Dean of the School of Public Health really says it Well, Dr. Michelle Williams, she often refers to public health as a big tent that draws people with a wide variety of specialties and experiences, and sort of this diversity that helps us address so many different complex and pressing challenges throughout the world. So at a high level, it’s a bit cheesy, but I’d say keep exploring and developing skills and interests that engage and excite you because you never know like what will come in handy. I mentioned a few things throughout our conversation. But some other tips I’d suggest from my own experience being that perpetual student right outside of formal education. There are so many resources available online. The pandemic in many ways has increased those opportunities online. Our school and Harvard in general has more online lectures, seminars and recorded talks that I can keep track of and I’ll plug our Harvard chance studio, they have some excellent talks with public health professionals from around the world. And those are all available online. You know, following the conversation, Twitter can be an intense place, but it can be very insightful to see how people are responding and reacting to any given topics you know, to anticipate if you’re building your own communication, some other things we haven’t talked about, but like graphic design skills, because of like my personal interest in digital art I learned, you know, Photoshop and other similar programs like way back in high school. But I had no idea how useful they would be, infographics and other images and image representations of data can make a big impact and getting a message across and getting it to stick. These days are far more tools available, either even free or low cost. And yeah, I would just keep asking, and this podcast is doing a great job, but talk to other people in public health and ask what they do. I’m constantly amazed how many people are so giving them their time, and assistance with so many competing responsibilities. So be sure to thank your mentors and peers.

Sujani 40:31
Thank you so much, Brett, for I think this is such an inspiring conversation around health communication. I’m, I’m certainly leaving this discussion with some great knowledge and not only public health communication, but also journalism. So thank you to you for that teaching moment. Yeah, I hope we can have you again on our podcast for other topics in the future.

Brett 40:53
Terrific. Thank you so much again, and I look forward to following along additional podcasts.

Sujani 41:00
Hey, so I hope you enjoy that episode. And if you want to get the links and information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to pHspot.org/podcast. And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I wanted to let you know about the career program that we run here at PH SPOT. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about building your dream public health career, then we can help you through this program. It’s an intensive hands on training program for early public health professionals. And this includes recent graduates and students. And you can now join the waitlist at pHspot.org/program. And you’ll be notified when the next cohort opens up. And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.

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About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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