PHRASES: Plain Talk about Public Health

by Mark R. Miller

Governmental public health has a communications challenge – how can health officials build partnerships and communicate their value when the term “public health” itself isn’t clear or, even worse, is misunderstood?

PHRASES, which is a clever acronym for Public Health Reaching Across Sectors, is one of the de Beaumont Foundation projects I am most excited about. Because public health is intertwined with sectors like housing, education, and business, the de Beaumont Foundation and the Aspen Institute are funding research and creating tools to help state and local public health officials better explain their value to potential partners. To form partnerships and make their communities healthier, government public health officials need to be able to explain what public health is and what they do.

PHRASES is led by an advisory committee with prominent names in health and journalism. It is chaired by Karen DeSalvo, MD, MPH, MSc, who served as Assistant Secretary for Health and the national coordinator for health information technology during the Obama Administration and the health commissioner of the City of New Orleans, and Soledad O’Brien, CEO of Starfish Media Group, host of “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” and former anchor and correspondent for CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and other media outlets.

O’Brien brings an outsider perspective as someone who is not in the public health field but has spent her career telling stories in clear and compelling ways. “I’ve seen that public health departments and officials do incredibly important work that touches people’s lives in ways they don’t even know,” she said. “But I’ve also seen that people in the field often struggle when trying to explain what public health is in a way that engages and inspires people. I’ve heard more conversations about what they do – the tactics – rather than why they do it and the value it adds to people’s daily lives.”

DeSalvo said, “Public health professionals can’t reach their goals alone, and to build partnerships they need to be able to communicate the value they bring. This initiative will help make the role of public health visible, useful, and relevant to decision-makers in housing, education, business, and other areas.”

To better equip the field, the de Beaumont Foundation and the Aspen Institute are working with the FrameWorks Institute, which conducts and publishes research that identifies the most effective ways to frame social and scientific topics. The goal is to learn what people outside the field think of public health, the value they see (or don’t), and their likelihood of partnering with public health professionals to improve their communities.

They started by interviewing leaders in public health and found that the way they describe public health can vary significantly, as you can see from the responses below.

What public health is:

  • The field that works to understand and improve the many social determinants of health.
  • A state or local government agency that defends the population against health threats and responds to community health needs.
  • A function overseen by the federal government, which plays a key role in disease outbreaks and prevention and funds state and local health agencies.
  • The health of the public, or population health.

What public health professionals do:

  • Prevent health problems by addressing the social determinants of health.
  • Create physical, mental, and social well-being by working to ensure living conditions that facilitate health outcomes.
  • Advocate for policies that protect and preserve health.
  • Use data to assess and manage risk, make decisions, and solve problems.
  • Promote health services through education campaigns.
  • Identify and respond to disease outbreaks and other emergencies.

These statements are all accurate, but they don’t inspire and communicate the true value of the field and the relevance to every citizen. One challenge is that public health does so many things. Now that the FrameWorks Institute has helped identify the challenges, they are working with the PHRASES team to the positioning and refine the language, so we can develop practical tools to engage and inspire others. Stay tuned.