Oct 30 2012
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APHA 2012: ‘The Public’s Health’ Blog — A Q&A with Michael Yudell and Jonathan Purtle

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Launched in fall of 2011, “The Public's Health” is the nation's only blog/column in a major U.S. newspaper dedicated solely to public health issues. It appears both online and in print in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Michael Yudell is an Associate Professor at the School of Public Health at Drexel University, where he is a public health historian and ethicist. Jonathan Purtle is a doctoral candidate in Health Policy and Social Justice, also at Drexel.

NewPublicHealth sat down with them to talk about their blog and their hopes for APHA 2012.

NewPublicHealth: How did the blog first come to be and how did it come to be on Philly.com?

Michael Yudell: We were approached by the Inquirer last summer. They were looking for folks to help them launch blogs specifically on public health issues. Their public health reporting is very robust and they wanted to complement that with the kind of work that you now see at “The Public’s Health.” And we went in, Jonathan and I, with a pitch of what it would look like over the course of basically six months of blogging and what we would write about, and we went basically three days a week with “these are what our blogs would look like,” and they loved our pitch and we pretty much shook on the spot and started writing for them about six weeks later.

NPH: What feedback are you getting about the blog?

Michael Yudell: I’ll say that we see public health as a big tent. We see it as a very broad and diverse discipline of folks coming from a wide variety of areas—everything from prevention to education, to more academic areas like epidemiology and biostatistics—but we see the work we do as educating the public to all of the issues that fall under the rubric of public health. I was just describing what we saw ourselves doing, what was the mission of the blog, how we envision public health, and we have done our best to cover topics, as you recognized in your comment earlier, that are incredibly broad and diverse and often enter into an advocacy realm around public health issues. We don’t shy away from any issues really. The paper has been completely supportive of the work we do and it’s been really exciting to be able to work with a major American newspaper—a great one at that—to get the word out about public health.

NPH: Have you seen any action or changes as a result of the blog?

Michael Yudell: I think both of those are part of our mandate. I think we certainly see our primary mandate, given the venue we have and given the audience we have access to, as educating the public on public health issues. And when we do that, we I think generally approach the issues that we’re writing about in a balanced way that’s evidence-based and that reflects what we believe is the best work being done in our field. That does not, however, shy us away from taking what can be pretty hard positions on issues that we believe are both essential to public health and rely on, again, sort of the evidence and the science of the work that folks are doing. And we’re not afraid to pick fights. We write about issues that are controversial, that we often get a lot of pushback on, but as we’ve written about on issues as diverse as climate change, the safety of vaccines and women’s health, we believe our positions are rooted in the science and in the wonderful work that people in our field do to improve the public’s health. We feel very comfortable and confident in taking those strong positions and we have always had the support of the newspaper in doing that.

NPH: I saw your post, after the first debate, talking about the fact that there was a lack of questions and answers about public health. If Jim Lehrer had phoned you both up and said I’d like to have a public health question, can you give it to me? What do you think you would have had him ask?

Michael Yudell: The first issue I think that has really been central to the campaign dating back to early in the Republican primaries is the issue of women’s health. And although it came out a little bit in the second debate, I really think it’s an issue that’s fundamental to the health and wellbeing of our population and it’s something I would have liked to have seen discussed in a robust way because I do believe that there are significant differences between the two candidates.

The other issue that went unmentioned—and it’s remarkable that it went unmentioned in all three debates—is that of climate change. I think that public health has begun to embrace climate change as a public health issue that has tremendous public health implications, and I think that it’s, frankly, shameful that neither candidate brought that issue up.

NPH: Do you share the same view Jonathan? Would you have added another question?

Jonathan Purtle: I think Michael’s questions are great. I guess a very straightforward question I would like to have seen asked is whether or not the candidates see healthcare as a human right. I can guess what the answers will be, but to see the issue framed in that way in the public forum, that would be interesting and I think that might change some minds potentially.

NPH: How much do you think people are realizing that public health is so much broader an issue and how important is it that individuals and policymakers understand that?

Jonathan Purtle: Obviously, I think it’s incredibly important that they understand that. And I definitely think that is one of our major goals, really talking about these social issues which are often well-defined issues and talking about them as health issues and bringing the research around the health consequences around poverty and unemployment and violence and so on and so forth, but as far as whether or not our audience is getting that message, it’s really hard to tell. We get comments and we get emails. Normally they’re of the nasty sort—the people who leave comments and send emails. I mean, that definitely tells us that at least a segment of our readership is not getting it, but we like to think that a lot of people are starting to get it who weren’t before and we just don’t really have a way of measuring that. Michael, do you want to add something?

Michael Yudell: I think it’s incredibly important. I think that one of the problems historically with public health is that it’s seen with some suspicion by the public and that folks think of public health as when the government or someone else tells you what you need to do to protect yourself or make yourself healthy. And while that is certainly an important part of some of the work we do, that is not what public health is ultimately about, and I think that we have sort of a salesmanship problem in public health in that we have not done the job to get the public to understand that public health can help people live healthier lives in very basic ways. And that most people, in fact, want to be healthy and they want to stay healthy, and that there’s so much that our field does that speaks to that, that does that without the types of interventions that make people a little jittery.

In fact, most of the work we do encourages people to be healthy; educates people on how to become more healthy or to stay healthy; and measures what might be disparities in health to try to change those things. And I think our messaging about what we can do and how we can help people lead healthier lives has been off, and that’s part of what I see our mission on the blog is, to get that word out. We’ve written on things as simple as redesigning instant cups of soup to prevent kids from getting burns, or battery and toy companies designing either better battery packs or better casings for toys so kids don’t swallow button-sized batteries, to the more fundamental issues like vaccines, to education around sex ed, to screening for hepatitis C. You know, these things that should not be intimidating to people, yet we have not historically done a good job at letting people know that these are the day-to-day things that go on in public health and these are the way we can help people be healthier.

NPH: What’s next for the blog?

Jonathan Purtle: Well, one thing that we’ve recently started to do is bring in an expert panel of bloggers, as we’re calling it, so we’ve reached out to…I think at least eight or nine people across the field, and even outside the field, to write about different public health issues or issues in their field kind of from a public health perspective. So, we have an expert on hydraulic fracturing; we have the chief of staff of the Philadelphia Public Health Department; we have someone from the zoo who’s going to write about the intersection between animal health and population health. Just a whole range of people to kind of, one, increase the frequency with which the posts are put up, and then also really to just expand our depths and our breadth. So that’s one thing that we’re doing. Michael, anything else?

Michael Yudell: Sure, a couple things. One, just to expand on Jonathan’s point, is we see this expert panel, as Jonathan said, as expanding our depth and breadth, but we also see it as an opportunity for other voices to contribute to what we’re doing and to increase our audience to get the word out even further. And we have just a fantastic cast of characters joining us right off the bat—folks, as Jonathan said, who will be writing about environmental stuff. We even have somebody from a nutrition viewpoint, and don’t quote me on this yet, but somebody from one of the restaurants in town. They have an educational foundation where they’re working with preparing healthier and tastier school lunches. So, they’re going to be writing about that. We’re really seeking to diversify.

The other thing that I would add as we look back on the year is it’s been a really neat experience. We are sort of in an interesting place at the forefront of old and new media coming together where we are using social media techniques like blogging and Twitter to get out information on public health, but doing so under the editorial guidance of a newspaper and we, like other folks at the Inquirer, submit our articles to our editor and they get edited and given the onceover and then they’re posted. So, we do have the paper and the imprimatur of the paper as a way to distinguish us in some way from some other stuff that’s going on in getting out public health messages, and which I think is an interesting way to get readers on Philly.com and people who subscribe to the Inquirer who wouldn’t normally come across public health information who suddenly find themselves looking at stories on public health.

Jonathan Purtle: One other thing we might want to do. Last, what was it? I think it was April. I guess that’s right. During the Philadelphia Science Festival we had a blogging and beers night that was sponsored by the Science Festival where we had a number of speakers. The health commissioner was there, we were there, our editor was there, and we had a pretty good turnout of about maybe 25, 30 people just upstairs at this bar in Philadelphia talking about public health. Some of the people were in public health and a lot of the people weren’t in public health who just thought it sounded interesting, which was awesome. So I think if possible we might want to have some more events like that because it seemed just really fruitful and really engaging having these conversations.

NPH: Can you tell me about your presentation at the APHA meeting and how it will involve the blog?

Jonathan Purtle: My session is the media advocacy session, so I’m generally just going to give an overview about the blog, its history, what it is, what we write about. And then I was kind of looking through what we’ve done over the course of the year and kind of came up with a list of “ingredients” for a successful blog post and then also kind of broke down a typology of the different types of blog posts we write. So I’m going to talk about that and then talk about a couple of the challenges we face if there’s enough time. We only have ten minutes and we want plenty of time for discussion. But that would be the gist of it.

Michael Yudell: Then we’re giving a second talk in the afternoon on social media and blogging and what we do, just sort of looking at how we’ve positioned ourselves, what makes us different as a social media voice, what makes us the same and how those help us get our message out.