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Center for Communication Programs' Work in Baltimore and Abroad

2017 David Alexander, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs

Public Health Ambassadors Uganda dance troupe in Luwero, Uganda. (Copyright 2017 David Alexander, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs)

The Power of Communication

The Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs (CCP) knows firsthand that communication saves lives—millions at a time.

Made up of more than 600 talented and creative communication professionals working in the United States and in more than 35 countries around the globe, the Center works to advance the critical role of health communication in public health. They create mass media campaigns that reach millions through television dramas whose characters model healthy behaviors, radio call-in shows where health questions are answered, and innovative mobile phone apps including one where users can have conversations with virtual family planning counselors. They are well versed in problem solving. They work seamlessly with varied stakeholders including community representatives, departments or ministries of health, and NGOs to implement successful public health interventions.

“Communication as a social science can be overlooked in public health,” says CCP executive director Susan Krenn, but the impact is both measurable and significant. A lack of consideration for proper communication about a vaccine campaign, for example, can leave parents reluctant to subject their children to what appears to be a painful procedure. Alternatively, an entertaining radio drama can successfully bring awareness to practices that help people prevent illness, such as hand washing or drinking clean water.

Communication is critical to public health worldwide and helps directly address barriers to good health choices and practices.

“This is really the practical reality of what it means to practice public health,” says Krenn. “Public health gets practiced at scale at CCP.”

CCP AWARDED $300 MILLION USAID GRANT

 

 


HEALTH COMMUNICATION JOBS IN THE FIELD: Baltimore and Kampala

 

Amber Summers, PhD ’13, MHS ’05

Amber Summers began her health career as a registered dietitian. But as she worked one-on-one with clients, she wondered if she could be reaching a larger audience. This desire led her to pursue a graduate degree in public health.

In 2012, she expanded her hands-on public health experience working as a graduate research assistant with B’More Fit for Healthy Babies, a community program offering weight loss support and wellness education for postpartum women in Baltimore through the umbrella city-wide initiative, B’more for Healthy Babies. She later joined the Center for Communication Programs full-time, where she continues her work with B’more for Healthy Babies on a number of initiatives. CCP’s work on B’more for Healthy Babies has helped that program dramatically reduce infant mortality in the city.

We think strategically about how to communicate with people as far as health behavior change. There’s a process that’s often missed when working with communities, whether it’s a small group or an entire city: Developing messages to encourage people to make changes and to show them how.

To do this, we gather information from the people we hope to help. Then, based on this information, we come up with ideas about how to support behavior change, test the ideas, put them into action and then evaluate what we came up with.

Across different projects—whether it's family planning, reducing the infant mortality rate or Meatless Monday—the goal is to strategically and clearly articulate messages so that they resonate with that audience.

B’More Fit for Healthy Babies started in 2011 through the joint efforts of city partners in the B’more for Healthy Babies coalition. We know that when a mom goes into a pregnancy overweight, it puts her at risk for both poor health outcomes during the pregnancy and poor birth outcomes. In order to bring this program to our communities, we needed to identify barriers to exercise and nutrition in those communities. We got feedback from the community to help design what the program would need to look like. For example, transportation is an issue—so, we offer transportation for moms to get there. We also provide child care.

One of the ways we get moms into the programs is to send recruitment materials to health care providers and community partners. Some recruitment also occurs at community outreach events and health fairs, we get referrals from B’more Fit members themselves.

We need to engage the people doing the actual work—providers in clinics, people doing community outreach, teachers, the fire department, etc. CCP helps with engagement of those stakeholders. We come up with lists of people to interview, plan meetings or workshops with different providers so they have feedback into this process.

When I was working in clinical nutrition and seeing patients one-on-one, it was clear that so many contextual factors go into individual behaviors. If you want a person to eat more fruits and vegetables, it’s hard for them to do that if there’s not much to choose from in the neighborhood. This work is thinking about policy and how to create a social and physical environment to support the healthy behaviors people want to do, or what will improve the chances for better health outcomes.

A lot of change comes from being able to communicate these ideas, not just to individuals but to stakeholders working in organizations or at the policy level. Health communication is often tailored toward specific audiences, but they’re [usually] pretty large. You can really shift the entire curve instead of just reaching a few people.

Public health has helped me to understand how to ask the right questions. We can focus on an individual, but when we zoom out we can see all the different things playing a role in a person's health. That’s what drew me in and what keeps me here.

 

Cheryl Lettenmaier, MPH ’87

Cheryl Lettenmaier began her career with CCP after receiving her MPH. She first worked as a writer for Population Reports and then moved to Uganda in 1994 to help lead communications campaigns. She recently worked with the American Cancer Society to create educational materials for cancer patients and their caregivers in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia—the first materials developed for African audiences. She currently serves as a CCP regional representative in Uganda.

 

When I was a nurse, I got a job working in Western Australia in the Department of Public Health as a community health nurse in an aboriginal community. I was in the far north of the country and the office that I worked for was in Perth thousands of kilometers away. The office would send out programs that we were supposed to use to train the aboriginal health workers, but they were completely out of touch with the reality of where we were working or the educational level of the health workers. I kept thinking, “They don’t even know the people they are talking to.” I realized that if you want to be at the level of the person who designs those things, you should get an MPH.

I’m working on a schistosomiasis prevention media campaign. We work with the Gates Institute to do surveys and test urine to determine prevalence. We will also do a follow-up study, once the campaign has been on the ground for a while, to see if there have been changes in people’s behaviors and knowledge.

One of the things we found on the baseline was that one in five people over five years old have schisto, and the majority have no clue that they have it. This is across the country, so it varies by location from a low of less than 10 percent to 50-80 percent in some communities. Only about half the people have even heard of it. Among those who know about it, very few of them know what causes it or how to prevent it.

This makes for a good media campaign because it’s not like trying to change deep-seated cultural norms. Many people would do something differently if they had enough information to make a healthier choice. But if you don’t know, you don’t have the opportunity to make the choice.

I think that we are the last resort when it comes to funding, but we should be one of the first things that people think about. We come from the point of view that every person should be empowered to make their own health decisions. We come from the point of view that there’s not a magic bullet for everything. People need to have lifestyles that support healthy living, but they also need to understand the risks of different diseases and conditions and know how they can protect themselves and how they can protect their family members.

I think we’re true preventers. We truly believe that people can determine their own health if they are knowledgeable and have the right attitude.

Anything you do in the field of health, you have to deal with the communication part of it. There have been terrible errors made in immunization programs and all kinds of other campaigns when they left out the communication piece. [Practitioners] have to understand health communication. And they need to value it.

A lot of what we do is really creative. I produced a whole television series here once. I came out here with an MPH and now I have a background in video production!

It would be invaluable if someone getting an MPH has a background in any one of these new media, like blogging or social media or use of mobile applications. Usually those are worlds-apart training.

Learn More About An MSPH in Health Communication