Category: Health Communication

To Talk About Health, We Need To Look Outside Our Field

To find innovative ways to communicate complex health topics, we need to look outside of public health. Communication is a human experience—one that takes on many forms—and we can learn to better communicators by looking beyond the communication strategies that are typical to our field.

For example, the Alamance County Children’s Museum has been running a “listen to your heart” exhibit. Visitors’ heartbeats are registered by sensors and then transformed into a drum beat that they can hear. While interacting with this exhibit, one visitor noticed that his heartbeat was significantly different from those of the people around him. He visited a doctor to figure out why and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.

In another case, researchers in South Africa disseminated their results using theater. By using theater to share results, researchers made abstract ideas seem more concrete. They were able to encourage audience engagement with their data and to validate their findings effectively. Beyond this, it is effective in populations with low health-literacy or where there may be language barriers between the participants and the research publications.

Using innovative mediums like theater and art to communicate about health gives us the opportunity to reach wider populations and to be more effective in what we teach.

For some more examples of innovative health communication, check out:

Storytelling in the Clinic

Going to the doctor often seems like a process of repeating yourself over and over. You explain what’s wrong to the front desk, to the nurses, and to your doctor. Often, I leave the office more confused and overwhelmed than I did going in! Surprisingly, my best experiences with doctors have happened during routine check-ups when I’ve had the chance to just chat with my healthcare provider about everyday things unrelated to my visit. Yet our healthcare system incentivizes spending less time with more patients rather than spending more time getting to know them. As patients and health professionals, we should consider the many ways we can use storytelling to improve healthcare.

A study in 2018 of 102 articles that used storytelling in health care showed that we are primarily using different methods of storytelling to:

  1. Examine health risks and experiences,
  2. Engage and educate populations,
  3. Inform public health practice, and
  4. Educate clinical professionals and organizations.1

Storytelling can also be used to advance policy and advocacy, for conscience-raising, community-building and shifting the narrative from populations to individuals beyond the clinic room.

Creating spaces for providers and patients to exchange stories within healthcare enriches and empowers narratives of pain and triumph that are often bogged down in language of symptoms and diagnoses.

For more information, check out:

Tsuei, E.K. & Starecheski, A. (2018). Uses of oral history and digital storytelling in public health research and practice. Journal of Public Health (154), 24-30.

-Joanna Ramirez

FDA Crackdown on Misleading Dietary Supplements

The United States is in the midst of a scientific wave. We are lucky to live during a time where new and effective medicines have changed the way we can prevent and treat chronic disease. However,  we have begun to see that fraudulent claims and products accompany this innovation. Amongst these deceptive products, dietary supplements are amongst the guiltiest parties.

The dietary supplement industry is extremely prosperous, with a market size of nearly $112 billion. Although some dietary supplements are effective, there are many which provide no benefit or can even cause harm to a consumer. Many false products make sweeping claims which have absolutely no backing evidence – such as dietary supplements which advertise that they can prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Dietary supplements do not have to be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before hitting the market. They can only be taken down afterwards if they have shown to cause adverse health outcomes or if the product is fake/misleading.

Just this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released a statement regarding just this. This press announcement calls for a new, massive regulation of dietary supplements. The FDA is addressing this issue because they believe ineffective dietary supplements can cause a great deal of harm when people take them as alternatives to approved treatments. This new statement provides a hopeful potential of establishing a more honest and less misleading supplement market.



many lines of complex source code cover the entire screen

Data visualization and health communication

Data visualization uses charts, graphs, maps, and other visuals to better understand data sets that are either very large or complex.  With the growth of big data, more and more companies need ways to understand all the information we collect.  Considering the world doubles the amount of data created every two years, the ability to visualize and understand this information is becoming increasingly important.

Data visualization helps health communicators as well. As we show disease outbreaks or chronic disease trends to the general public, we also rely on data visualization tools that help people digest this complex information.  However, we don’t always remember to develop these data skills as we’re learning to use plain language, active voice, and visuals with lots of white space.

Last week, UNC data visualization librarian, Lorin Bruckner, presented a data visualization workshop to this semester’s Upstream Downstream blog editors. While we learned many bits of information specific to data, this lecture also reminded us of some basic communication questions:

  1. Does everything on the page add to your message?
  2. Is there any way to make this work look less cluttered?
  3. Can your audience understand the information?

In data, design, or content writing it’s easy to forget to stop and ask these fundamentals.  Are you still using them in your work?

To Address the Spread of Misinformation, Get Specific

With greater access to information, it’s become increasingly hard to tell fact from fiction. (Source: Paintings (Triptych) by Wang Jianwei 汪建偉)

In the current polarized political climate, it is increasingly necessary to carefully frame the results of health and basic science research. Health researchers need to be aware of the potential misuse and misinterpretation of their research.

Concerningly, white supremacists have brought this problem to a national stage. A recent NY Times article describes the misappropriation of genetic research, used by the far right to lay claims to a biological basis for socially-determined traits like race and intelligence.

Misinformation has been addressed before on Upstream Downstream, but the problem is increasingly relevant. Researchers can pre-empt some of the abuse and distortion of their findings by engaging and expanding on the ethical and social implications of their work.

For example, one or two sentences in the discussion section of a manuscript could rebuff parties that have their own agenda. Situating findings within their broader social contexts, such as the specific upstream causes of health disparities, may mitigate the spread of fake news.

The framing around racial health disparities, for example, could be improved by actually naming racism as the root cause of poor health— instead of ending the conversation by identifying the marginalized groups who suffer from worse outcomes.

Taking the extra step to be explicit in communicating findings around health and science can go a long way.


-Steven Houang

Online and IRL: Let’s Talk About Health Advocacy

Our smart phones deliver more than just answers to our Google questions. Mobile phones make communicating with each other easier than ever. About 95% of people in the United States own a cell phone of some kind; 77% own a smart phone. Nationally, the Pew Research Center estimates that seven out of ten people use at least one social media platform to connect with one another, read news, or for entertainment.

Combined with the availability of mobile phones, social media is the perfect avenue for advocacy on today’s public health problems.

By enabling its users to share experiences or expertise about issues, social media helps inform broad audiences about topics like mental health or diet and exercise. Influencers–people who have amassed large audiences on social media–inspire audiences to take action with just one photo or video. They donate to causes or make phones calls to elected officials about pertinent issues. Other times, the influence of messages shared through social media is more subtle. Among other things, they can help us feel more comfortable talking about difficult topics in our everyday conversations with colleagues or friends.

While “likes” and reposts serve as one way to advocate, it is crucial that we have conversations about public health in real life.

Get involved in local advocacy efforts in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) by connecting with the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NC NAACP) and Minority Health Caucus who host their signature advocacy events in February. The NC NAACP follows a long tradition of social justice advocacy via the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HK on J) on February 9th and the Minority Health Caucus will lead it’s 40th Annual Minority Health Conference on February 22nd. Both events are great ways to learn about local issues and take action both in person and by raising visibility of issues using social media.


By Maribel Sierra


Statistics from:

Pew Research Center. (2018, February 5). Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States. Retrieved January 31, 2019, from

Pew Research Center. (2018, February 5). Demographics of Social Media Users and Adoption in the United States. Retrieved January 31, 2019, from


A Lack of Vacc’s in this “Mild” Flu Season

Every year, our immune systems are exposed to a new strain of the flu. The flu evolves and changes constantly. This is why we have to get a new vaccine or “flu shot” every year. However, as the viruses change, so does the severity of their disease.

The impact of the flu virus is unpredictable, and that is why the CDC (and many other public health professionals) will always advise people to get their flu shot.  However, this year, a majority of adults are refusing to get their shot. A survey from mid-November showed that only 43% of 18+ adults have gotten their flu shots in the US.

From this survey, many of the people who have not been vaccinated claim they do not intend to get vaccinated. People seem to believe this is a “mild” flu season – as the death toll is not comparable to the high burden from the previous year. However, there is no way to know if the flu itself is actually “mild” this early in the season.




40th Minority Health Conference – Feb. 22, 2019

Save the Date! The 40th annual Minority Health Conference will be taking place on February 22, 2019 at the William and Ida Friday Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The theme for this year’s conference is “Advocacy for Change: Celebrating Past Successes and Planning for the Future,” which celebrates how advocacy can be used as a powerful tool for advancing the health of minorities and people of color.

The Minority Health Conference is the largest and longest running student-led health conference in the United States. The first conference was held in 1977 by the Minority Student Caucus. Past conference themes have ranged from health policy impacts on minorities to workplace health, to economic mobility and minority health.

Last year’s Minority Health Conference celebrated the theme of “Reclaiming the Narrative,” focusing on how narratives as a form of storytelling can be used as a driver for social change. I had the absolute pleasure of attending this conference and learning from the experiences of change leaders in our communities and their contributions to minority health.

Additional Minority Health Conference information, including how to register will be shared soon at You can also check out the Minority Health Conference Twitter page here.


Drug Overdose & Suicide Rates Climb in the US While Life Expectancy Falls

Despite being leaders in medical innovation, the United States is often criticized for healthcare problems that don’t exist in other developed nations. Lately, increasing rates of suicide and drug overdose have taken a toll on our population’s life expectancy. Recent government reports from the CDC have shown a decrease in life expectancy from 2016 to 2017.


In 2017, approximately 70,000 yearly deaths were attributed to drug overdosing, which is almost 7,000 more than the year before. In addition to this, suicide rates had increased by nearly 4% from the previous year. Both of these statistics are alarming and disturbing. For while we are constantly advancing science and medicine to create novel disease treatments and cures, we often are ignoring preventable public health crises.


These statistics contribute to the evidence that drug overdose is a mishandled and somewhat neglected epidemics in the United States. Other sources suggest that mental health has been on the decline in the United States for years. Taken as a whole, these findings highlight the need for more attention to these preventable morbidities and mortalities.


December 1st is World AIDS Day

Yesterday was World AIDS Day, a global event that takes place each year on December 1st to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, to honor those who have died from AIDS-related illness, and to show support for those living with HIV.

Globally, we have made advances in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. New HIV infections have decreased by 47% since 1996, and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses have fallen more than 51% since 2004. We have made advances in HIV testing and prevention as well as antiretroviral treatment. Pre-exposure antiretroviral prophylaxis or “PrEP” has been shown to be an effective form of HIV prevention. PrEP is a pill that, when taken consistently, can reduce HIV infection risk in high-risk individuals by up to 92%. And when used with other HIV prevention methods such as using condoms, can offer even more protection. In 2015, the World Health Organization recommended use of pre-exposure antiretroviral prophylaxis or “PrEP” for high-risk individuals to prevent HIV.

However, while we have made tremendous progress in understanding the HIV virus and how to both treat and prevent it, there is still more to be done. About one in four people with HIV do not know they are infected. 1.8 million people are newly infected each year with HIV, any people across the globe lack access to the critical HIV prevention and care that they need to live long, healthy lives.

To learn more about HIV and how you can support people living with the virus, please visit the following resources:

CDC: About HIV/AIDS | |

HIV/AIDS World Health Organization |

San Francisco AIDS Foundation |


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, November 1). Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). Retrieved from

Kaiser Family Foundation. (2018, July 25). The Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic.

National AIDS Trust: World AIDS Day. (2018). About World AIDS Day.

UNAIDS. (2018). Global HIV & AIDS statistics  – 2018 fact sheet. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018, November 20). Global Statistics. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (2015). Guideline on when to start antiretroviral therapy and on pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, web supplement: annex 2: evidence to decision-making tables and supporting evidence (No. WHO/HIV/2015.36). World Health Organization.

World Health Organization. (N.d.). WHO and HIV: 30-Year Timeline. Retrieved from