Health Communication: 5 Questions with Jamie Reedy

A portrait of Jamie Reedy
DrPH student Jamie Reedy

DrPH student Jamie Reedy is passionate about health communication. She is completing a doctoral practicum with the Translational Research Team at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Her work focuses on the various applications of health communication with a primary emphasis on translating information and evidence from academic papers into actionable messages for the public.

Over the next several months, Reedy will be working on projects related to health communication, including deliverables for the public, academic researchers, undergraduate/graduate students and professors, medical and clinical providers, maternal and child health professionals, and policymakers.

Why is health communication important in today’s world?

"Health communication has always been important, but in today’s world, we see the global impact that poor communication can have on health outcomes. Health communication is a foundational competency for anyone in public health. But it is also a critical professional skill for advancing health promotion, increasing productive engagement with the healthcare system, and rebuilding trust in these professionals. People now consume knowledge and health information in different ways and from new sources. Staying engaged with the public and translating information in an emerging landscape of new media will remain essential as the field moves forward. Translating health information for diverse audiences also sharpens our focus on health equity and accessibility, helping us to break down historical barriers and empower people to make healthy decisions."

How did you become interested in health communication?

"My interest in health communication developed over time as I explored my numerous academic interests. My early undergraduate major was in graphic design and media communications, with a minor in English and composition. But I quickly shifted my focus to the sciences: social science and life science. I spent the remainder of my undergraduate career studying psychology and biochemistry. Before entering my master’s program in child and adolescent psychology, I completed graduate work in molecular genetics. I then advanced to a research-focused doctorate in international psychology with an emphasis on organizations and systems. My academic career always teetered between the life sciences and the social science of behavior change but was always focused on health and healthcare. A few years back, my father was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer called myelofibrosis. For the third time in my life, I supported someone I loved through the unimaginable. And the health system continued to be challenging to navigate, the disease difficult to describe, and the treatment plan hard to explain. I was educated in biochemistry and counseling, and I had been working in healthcare for years. Yet I still struggled to communicate about this complex disease in a way my dad could understand. And I struggled to help him communicate with his medical team. After my father passed, I knew it was time for me to change the focus of my academic career and transition into public health. I also knew that I wanted to focus on health communications so that other patients and families could better understand their health and communicate with their providers.

It’s exciting to apply my interests in behavior change theories, health promotion, education, and applied research. But I also get to think creatively, use my graphic design skills, and communicate with diverse audiences. I finally feel like I know what I want to be when I grow up. It took me several years and a few different academic paths to learn about health communication as a field. But once I discovered it, I knew I had been on this path all along."

Why does research need to be “translated” from academic papers for the public, and what benefits have you seen from this sort of translation?

"Research, data, science, and even health policy can be complicated and siloed. In academia and research, we always ask the question “so what?” when evaluating a study’s outcomes to help us determine if the results were meaningful for applied practice. But when I think about health communications, I also ask, “now what?” How do we take that statistically significant research finding and help regular people use that information to make healthy behavior changes? This question helps us to operationalize our research into behavior changes and improved health outcomes for everyone. Data in a table doesn’t lead people to change their behaviors, but a compelling story does. Research findings from an academic paper aren’t accessible to most people, so how do we expect the public to use our data? Without translating that research, the information stays siloed and never reaches the intended audience. I know that silo can sometimes be a dirty word, but translational research writers and health/science communicators are working to break those down by communicating with their primary audiences in mind. Your primary audience might be adults in your community, school-age children, researchers and scientists from other fields, policymakers, healthcare professionals, the media, or sometimes several of them at once. But without translating the jargon and complex content, your intended message can be lost. Using plain language is important whether you are talking about clinical best practices, public awareness of health precautions during a pandemic, or parenting advice for preventing childhood injuries. When we translate research for a specific audience, we make the health information accessible, empathetic, transparent, and actionable. Using plain language and other health literacy principles promotes health equity and cultural humility and empowers the audiences to make informed choices about leading healthy lives."

What processes do you use for “translating” academic work into easy-to-digest information?

"Many communication and behavior change theories are used when working in health communications. But if you break it down to its core, it’s all about defining your purpose (or intended effect), knowing your audience, finding your one key message, choosing the right channel, and using the right messenger. Health communications can take many forms, including long and short-form copy or videos, visual graphics or art, podcasts or sound bites, and even entertainment education, depending on your purpose and intent. There are many tips and skills that we use in the process of translating academic work into easy-to-digest information. One example is using plain language without any jargon or complicated text. As a health communications student, I am unlearning the art of “academic writing” and learning to just say exactly what I mean. Another example is using social math to break down large numbers and complicated statistics into a meaningful narrative. I need to understand those statistics as a public health professional. But I also need to communicate that data in a way my audience can understand. My mentor often quotes Andy Goodman, who said, “No one ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart.” Storytelling helps you influence behavior change by connecting with your audience, and social math helps you tell the story of your data. I could talk for hours about my favorite processes of health communications and translating research into digestible bites, but where’s the fun in that? If you want to know more, I highly recommend taking our course in health communications with Dr. Manganello here at UAlbany. It is one of the most fascinating and informative courses you’ll take at SPH."

What audiences are you most interested in creating health messages for, and why?

"I am most interested in creating messages for the child health and childhood cancer communities. I am completing the Maternal and Child Health graduate certificate, also known as the MCH certificate, here at UAlbany along with my DrPH because I love working with children and their families. I also have a deep passion for working for the cancer community, which initially drew me to public health. My dream career would be to create health messages for the childhood cancer community using entertainment education. I feel that having a passion for child health actually gives me the opportunity to work with many audiences, including parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, healthcare professionals, educators, and many others that engage with children as they live, learn, play, and grow. I would love to tell stories that influence youth behavior change and positively impact health outcomes for this community."