RWJF 40th Anniversary "Connections" Conference: To Get Health Messages To The Public, Tell Stories

Oct 25, 2012, 10:00 AM

By B. Japsen 

If the public, patients and political leaders are to better understand health and health care, they need to hear stories.

That was the message to public health and health care leaders from Dr. Richard Besser, a public health expert and chief health and medical editor at ABC News in his keynote address to open the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) 40th anniversary “Connections” Conference.

Health and health care can be complicated and medical care providers and public health workers should do more than provide information and data even if it is contrary to what they were taught in medical school or schools of public health.

In Besser’s case, he is an epidemiologist who said he was taught to “discount anecdotes” and explain public health through data. Yet, when a story is told on television, that does not always work, he said.

“Tell stories, that’s what works,” said Besser, who was director of the Coordinating Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before joining ABC three years ago. “We need to learn to talk about public health through stories. Find the heroes in your communities.” 

But it goes beyond getting a message to the media. Besser said medical care providers, public health experts need to use stories of their patients and their issues when they give speeches, talk to colleagues and address their communities.

“They love stories about people overcoming challenges,” Besser said.  “If you don’t have the trust of the public, you will fail.” 

The 40th anniversary meeting, which runs through Friday, at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village in Princeton, N.J., is looking back at what RWJF has accomplished as well as looking ahead to the future.

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, RWJF’s president and chief executive officer, said the foundation will continue to focus on its pledge to tackle the greatest challenges in health and health care for “as long as it takes.”

“A lot of what we do is not a job,” Lavizzo-Mourey said. “It’s a calling.”

Bruce Japsen is an independent health care journalist who attended the two-day RWJF event as journalist in residence. He writes a health care business and policy blog for Forbes at He also contributes health care stories to the New York Times, Chicago Medicine magazine and teaches writing at Loyola University Chicago. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.