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What can maps tell us about health?




 March 13, 2010


A map is a wonderful example of a visual health communication tool that tells us so much with so little text. The notion that “one picture is worth a thousand words” more than applies. Mike Mackert discusses a new resource, a map, on his health communication research blog []. If you click on his link to the overall map resource, you can use a slide bar on the right side to display which states have passed which laws and policies relating to tobacco and smoking. A great example of giving citizens and elected representatives points for comparison. From a communication perspective, several thoughts come to mind.

First, this is a great way to illustrate a role for visual literacy as part of health literacy. In terms of our understanding, when we have a visual image to tell us something, it saves us a step in our thinking and understanding. We don’t “think” in words.  For example, when I say “snow,” you “think” an image — something likely related to your own experience with snow. You do not think “s”–“n”–“o”–“w” and try to get meaning from thinking and forming these letters in your head. When you see a picture of snow, there is an instant connection to your mental picture.

Second, this process I have just described assumes, of course, that you have experience with snow to draw on in forming a mental picture. I am reminded of a test that my daughter was given in order to start public school “early.’ Her birthday is September 14th. She thus missed the September 1 cutoff date. We requested that she be tested to  start, as we felt that she was more than ready. The test validated our opinion. It also showed that she could not give a name to a picture of a “snow shovel.” She was born in Tucson, Arizona, and she had never seen snow let alone a snow shovel. So, she could not make a match in memory between the picture and a name or label for it.

So, third, any visual form used to communicate–and there are many in health communication, ranging from photos to bar graphs to pie charts to maps and more–depends on a user’s ability to connect experience and skill to an intended meaning. In the case of the map Dr. Mackert identifies, it aids the user who moves a mouse over the geography by having the names of different states ‘pop-up’ to help a user who may not remember the name or location of any given state. It offers a series of folder options across the top for a user to click on, so that there is not too much information presented in any one map. It does rely on a number of colors in the maps that are somewhat close on a color wheel and might be difficult for some users to distinguish. It also identifies two sources of the information at the bottom of the map that are not easily navigated to gain insights about the method used to gather the information. It is, however, what policymakers often seek to help them wade through all the mounds of information related to decision-making.    

Maps can, therefore, tell us what is happening in one location as compared to another, giving us a location hypothesis or explanation for health and health care…

What is “public health” anyway?

copy-of-p3061598March 1, 2010

As children begin to know about roles and jobs, some will say, “I want to be a doctor.” Their parents buy them a ‘doctor’ kit to play with, and they practice being a doctor. I never hear a child say, “I want to work in public health.” Why is that? What’s wrong with this picture?

Public health isn’t part of the usual high school curriculum, so we don’t get an introduction to what a career in public health might look like. When health education is taught in high school, the course doesn’t introduce students to the public health system. And so, not surprisingly, few of us know what public health is or what the public health system does. 

Public health often treats health as a public good. A public good is something for which the benefits for one of us cannot be separated from the benfits for ‘all’ of us. When I get a flu shot, I am supposed to benefit by not getting the flu. But others benefit because they do not get exposed to the flu from me. 

So monies spent to inspect restaurants or public pools benefit every member of the public who eats at the restaurants or uses the pools, not just one of them. Monies spent for newborn screening programs benefit all of us because we identify conditions at early stages when prevention or care may limit the harm, and all of us benefit by having a friend or neighbor who can be a healthier and more productive citizen.     

School vaccines. Programs for reproductive health. Collection of data about births and deaths–vital statistics that can show patterns and be used to suggest how to improve birth outcomes and decrease deaths. Cancer registries. Programs to prevent disease and accidents. All of these and more are prt of public health’s efforts to promote the public good.

Is the public good “good” for me? Often it is. Sometimes, it may not be.

There are limits to what vaccines I want to be used as gatekeepers to my employment. But there are even more limits to what genetic tests I want to be used as gatekeepers to my free choice to pursue life paths. So the first step is to become aware of what public health means what public does. Then we can advance agendas relating to support for public health and guidelines about where to draw the line in the name of promoting the public’s health.

How fear appeals affect our motivation to practice healthy habits?

A winter walk

February 7, 2010

Fear is something most of us would rather not experience. Especially when it comes to our health. Yet, so much communication about health aims to make us fearful. Why is that?

Over time, research has shown that fear can be motivating. Because we don’t want to be fearful when it comes to our health, we may take action. That is, if we know how and believe the action will actually benefit our health.

The problem with too many fear appeals aimed at our health is that they do not fulfill the task of telling us what action to take, why the action will  be effective, and how we can develop the skills or gain the resources to take the action.

Take the example of skin cancer.  Most of us know that too much exposure to the sun can cause this deadly disease. We also know that some sun or UV exposure helps our body make vitamin D. So how much sun is too much sun? What if we like to stay healthy by being outdoors in the sun? What if our job requires us to be in the sun? An effective fear appeal communicates about these issues and doesn’t just make us fearful about being in the sun.

So if communication about health makes you feel fearful, look for the response recommended to reduce the threat. If the message doesn’t contain that information, it’s not a very good message. But at least you will know that what to look for to control the danger posed in the message and your fear as well. A response to the threat and ways you can carry it out. 

Until next time, talk about health with the ones you love. It really might be a matter of…life and death.

What about public health care reform?

117_1784January 10, 2010

I never hear anyone talk about public health when they talk about ‘health care reform.’ This bothers me because we have a univeral system of public health in the U.S. and we spend quite a lot of resources on it. The services linked to our public health care system range from checking the quality of restaurants and ‘grading’ them to providing newborn screenings. We spend quite a lot of time deciding what services to provide in each state. Besides registering births and deaths, and newborn screenings, many states have prenatal care programs, other women’s health programs, and a wide range of programs from smoking cessation to drug prevention to cancer screenings.

We don’t talk much about public health. But what might a connected system of health care built on the system of clinics and services for public health look like? How would doctors and health care staff feel about building on their infrastructure? Some states have regional health care directors? How would they regard an effort to connect the services they oversee to a broader range of services for the public to consider as a choice for care?


HPV, HIV, HBV…and more

January 8, 2010

I am working on a project designed to understand how college students think about HPV. I have learned that the human papillomavirus — HPV — is confused with HIV by some male college students in this project and that some females confuse it with HBV — the hepatitis B virus…

The media has covered the HPV vaccine and, of course, we have all those direct-to-consumer ads appealing to the ‘I want to be one less’ angle. What isn’t clear in many of these stories and ads is that HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. That is why genital HPV cannot be guaranteed to be protected by use of a condom during sexual intercourse.

The HPV vaccine is, of course, not designed to prevent HIV. A female who has completed the series of HPV shots likely has about five years of protection from HPV. She is not protected from the human immunodeficiency virus — HIV. Males who mistake the two conditions, HPV and HIV, may wrongly believe that the HPV vaccine protects her and him from HIV and thus feel less inclined to use a condom to prevent HIV. That is a serious mistake.

The incidence of head and neck cancers over the past decade has been found to be related to oral HPV. College males who report engaging in open-mouthed kissing have been found to be more likely to test positive for oral HPV. But this is not the only path for transmitting oral HPV. As with genital HPV, the skin-to-skin contact provides a transmission route.

There is a vaccine  for HBV. HBV affects the liver and is transmitted in ways that are similar to HIV, including blood and bodily fluids. It really can be a matter of life and death if we fail to keep straight the differences between these three and our actions to prevent them.

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