Communicating for Public Health

Dr. Richard Besser dons multiple layers of protective gear before entering an Ebola Ward.  (Photo: ABC News)
Dr. Richard Besser dons multiple layers of protective gear before entering an Ebola Ward. (Photo: ABC News)

When Dr. Richard Besser was reporting from the Ebola crisis in Liberia in 2014, he knew how to keep himself safe. But, says the health and medical editor for ABC News, there was more at stake than his personal welfare.

“Whenever I’m doing a story, I’m looking for what information I can give people to help them take charge of their health and improve their health,” he says. “For public-health professionals, communications should not be an after thought. It can impact in a big way the health decisions that people make.”

Dr. Besser will deliver a Provost Lecture Series talk at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 13. His presentation, “A View from Both Sides of the Camera: Using Television to Promote Public Health,” is free and open to the public.

As a health communicator and a practicing pediatrician (he sees patients one day a week at his New York office), Dr. Besser advises doctors and other health practitioners to use the news media to convey factual information and dispel fear. “I have spent a lot of time talking to doctors and people in public health about why they really need to jump to it when the press calls. It’s an opportunity that may be very short lived to get out a message about something that you care about a lot.

“If you don’t know how to speak in plain language, you may not get your message across and miss an opportunity to improve health,” he adds.

As an interim director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, Dr. Besser oversaw efforts to respond to the H1N1 flu pandemic.

He brings physicians to ABC News monthly to work on communications skills. “They work on translating complex medical information for the general public, especially focusing on word selection. The use of the wrong word puts up a barrier between the health-care provider and the patient, and often you don’t even know that you’re doing it,” he says.

Dr. Besser calls for research to understand what kinds of communications work best for improving public health and changing health behavior. “The evidence base is pretty slim,” he adds.