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At APHA, We Are Reminded Why We Do Public Health

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Wednesday marked the close of the American Public Health Association's (APHA's) Annual Meeting and Exposition, and what a fantastic several days it was. In excess of 12,000 attendees, nearly 500 exhibitors, more than 1,000 sessions (30+ sessions in the health communication section alone), and one take-home message to sum it up: Never lose sight of why we do what we do.

APHA 2014

Why public health?

Answers to this question were at every turn this week, before even arriving at the conference. Reagan airport was covered in reminders that "health is everything," as though CVS knew we were coming. I loved the phrase when CVS unveiled its new branding, and it rings true every time I see it. Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak reiterated this point, arguing that: "Without a healthy people, we are nothing. Without a healthy people, we have no future." This idea that health is of utmost importance resounded throughout the conference, but that importance alone isn't in itself "the why" behind what we do.

The other piece of the story is an opportunity for change, for positive impact. Current APHA President Joyce Gaufin kicked off the conference in part by sharing her family's experience providing foster care - and a simple but powerful message for why they opened their home. They believed they could make a difference. "Isn't that why you do public health," she asked. That potential to impact people's lives for the better is certainly what excites me about the work we do at FMG.

Health is Everything

So, why do we do public health? Because health is everything, and we believe we can make a difference.

With such an important why, how we go about accomplishing our goals is especially important. Luckily, the conference provided some great takeaways in that regard too.

  • Place matters. The theme of this year's conference was "healthography" - how where you live affects your health and well-being. In the spirit of this year's theme, I shared an example of an audience segmentation approach that is particularly useful when risk factors have a strong geographic component. More on that another time.
  • Context matters. It is essential to understand the context of a person's life. Knowledge isn't enough - how will your audience need to use that knowledge in the context of their individual lives? What barriers will they face? These are essential questions that underscore the importance of formative research and message tailoring.
  • Message frame matters. Think outside the box when framing your cause. For example, one interesting example shared dealt with climate change. Americans don't normally associate climate change with health risks but rather they associate it with environmental risks. Generally, Americans tend to care more about health risks than environmental risks, making health an effective frame for the climate change issue. Same topic, different frame, different result. How do you know what frame will be most impactful? Turn to research.
  • Message dose matters. Determining the amount of investment needed to produce a desired effect is crucial, but little research exists on health communication dose-response. One particularly interesting effort explored this question through controlled text message delivery. More research is needed, however, to understand how to optimize the "when" and "how much" of communication.

All in all, sound - and inspired - research is a necessity on the path to our public health goals. Grateful to work with folks who accept nothing less than a synergy of the two. Huge thanks to all the organizers, presenters, exhibitors, and attendees for sharing excitement, sparking ideas, advancing knowledge, engaging in debate, reminding us to take a step back and remember our long-term goals, and providing tips on how to get there. We look forward to Chicago next year and all the progress in-between.

What will keep you motivated until then? Please share the inspiration by leaving us a comment below on why you do public health.

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