Lab Matters Winter 2023 | Page 18

If we can ’ t effectively communicate what public health is , how are we ever expecting legislators and the public and business leaders to understand ?”
Brian Castrucci , DrPH
This environment presented both challenges and opportunities . Especially early on , questions far outnumbered answers . The sheer volume of laboratory work was overwhelming and unrelenting . Illness and social distancing left everyone stretched thin . And for many laboratorians , talking about their work to external audiences hadn ’ t been a big part of what they were used to doing . Laboratory directors , staff and others had to step into more public-facing communications roles .
But all that attention also created opportunities to stay visible and share messages about the essential work and services that public health laboratories provide for their communities . Advocacy efforts at both federal and state levels have boosted government funding for public health . The American Rescue Plan included $ 7.6 billion for public health workforce . And this year in Indiana , coordinated communication efforts helped lead to a 1,500 % increase in public health funding .
Such outcomes are far from certain everywhere , however . “ Any time things are in the consciousness of the public , through the media , that can be both a time of opportunity and a time of risk ,” said Judy Monroe , MD , president and CEO of the CDC Foundation . Poorly executed communications can sow confusion and create division . But authentic and transparent communication can be a powerful tool to build authority , support and trust with communities and other stakeholders . So how can directors and other laboratorians learn to wield them more effectively ?
Knowing Your Messages
The essence of good communication is knowing what you want to say , and finding the right words to convey the messages to the target audience .
The first step is to figure out the key ideas you need to get across , and state them in clear , concise , understandable terms : Masks help reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 . PCR tests are very effective at identifying whether a person has the coronavirus . Effective messages should be accurate and fact-based , but it ’ s often not possible to convey the full nuance and detail you might tell a fellow laboratorian — and that is okay .
“ People don ’ t need to know all the caveats ,” said Kelly Wroblewski , MPH , director of APHL ’ s Infectious Diseases program , who became a frequent spokesperson for APHL throughout the pandemic . She noted it can be paralyzing to try to say the perfect thing when information is complex and shifting quickly . Over time , she ’ s gotten more comfortable “ not to give the technically 100 % accurate answer , but give the ‘ close enough to correct ’ answer that people are going to understand .”
It helps to consider the perspective of your intended audience and what they really need to know from you . That will vary from place to place , said Scott Shone , PhD , HCLD ( ABB ), director of the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health . His state has a mix of very urban and very rural areas with very diverse needs , he noted . “ I have to be able to figure out the message that ’ s going to address the community to whom I ’ m speaking … and how do I hone my message to address their concerns or where they might be getting other messaging .”
Some of this comes down to word choice . Shone quickly learned to say “ test ” instead of “ assay ” and “ look at the virus ’ genetics ” instead of “ whole genome sequencing .” With practice , he was able to reach people from the Research Triangle to eastern farm communities to western industrial centers . The team ’ s efforts paid off . At a time when governmental trust took a big hit , he said , “ trust in the North Carolina Department of Health actually was one of the highest in the country because of the way we communicated .”
Remember , too , that good communications can encompass more than just words , said Myra Kunas , director of the Minnesota Public Health Laboratory . Dashboards , data visualizations , infographics and even spreadsheets can all be valuable ways to share information . Early in the pandemic , her team even gave a staff member from the governor ’ s office a tour of the laboratory to help convey the complexity of the testing environment . What ’ s most important is to share the laboratory ’ s expertise as best you can in that moment . “ Communications sometimes needs to be fine tuned , but when you get it right you can reach someone you couldn ’ t before ,” Kunas said . “ At the end of the day , that ’ s what we ’ re here for — to prevent disease outbreaks , make sure babies are safe , and ensure drinking water is safe .”
Breaking Through the Noise
With the extra visibility and awareness of public health has also come an influx of misguided and misleading information — intentional and not — said Peter Kyriacopoulos , APHL ’ s chief policy officer . COVID-19 “ has inextricably linked
16 LAB MATTERS Winter 2023
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