Celebrating LGBTQ+ Public Health Heroes!

Two doodles are standing on opposite sides of a rainbow. The doodle on the left is in black and white, and the doodle on the right shows off the colors of the Progress Pride Flag.

This Pride Month we’ve been reflecting on some of the amazing accomplishments of LGBTQ+ people across the country and around the world. Accomplishments made in the face of discrimination that’s existed for centuries and persists today — as demonstrated by the 300-plus anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in U.S. state legislatures this year.

So today we’re honoring some of the LGBTQ+ people whose contributions have shaped public health, health communication, and health education. Here are just a few of their stories.

Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake
In 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake wanted to become a doctor, but she was rejected from medical school because she was a woman. Her response? Well, to spend the rest of her career creating places for women in medicine, of course! She published an essay called Medicine as a Profession for Women and rallied a group of 6 other female applicants. The “Edinburgh Seven” then gained acceptance to the University of Edinburgh, but the school ultimately kept them from graduating. Undeterred, Dr. Jex-Blake cofounded the London School of Medicine for Women and lobbied for legislation that allowed women to take medical licensing exams. After (finally!) earning an MD herself, she became the first female doctor to practice in Scotland. Then she established another medical school — the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. Um, wow.

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker
The first woman to earn a doctorate degree in public health, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker helped contain New York City’s typhoid epidemic at the turn of the twentieth century. She played a key role in identifying cook Mary Mallon (aka “Typhoid Mary”) as an asymptomatic carrier and getting her out of the kitchen. When she wasn’t busy tracking down Mary — and, depending on your source material, almost getting stabbed with a fork by Mary — Dr. Baker dedicated her career to reducing infant mortality. She educated parents and community members in NYC’s poorest neighborhoods about infant care and hygiene practices like handwashing, advocating for preventive care way before it was cool, errr … a cornerstone of public health.

Dr. Bruce Voeller
Biologist Dr. Bruce Voeller played a pivotal role in early AIDS research — in fact, he even gave the condition its name. In the early years of the epidemic, AIDS was known by a few different names, including gay-related immune defense disorder, or GRIDD. Dr. Voeller very correctly pointed out that this term was both stigmatizing and inaccurate (hello, health comm!) — and coined the term we use today. Dr. Voeller went on to conduct pioneering research on using condoms and spermicides to prevent the spread of HIV. He also founded the National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force) — the first group to meet with the President to advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian Americans. Dr. Voeller passed away from complications of AIDS in 1994.

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde often introduced herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Though she’s best known for confronting systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia through her poetry, Lorde also wrote about her experience with cancer. When Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977, she couldn’t find any stories of Black lesbian women dealing with similar situations, so she decided to write her own in The Cancer Journals. In doing so, she gave a voice to women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people whose experiences with cancer didn’t fit the standard narratives of the time.

Phill Wilson
In 1999, Phill Wilson cofounded the Black AIDS Institute (BAI), an organization dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic in the Black community. Wilson saw that Black Americans were disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, yet they were often left out of existing education initiatives. To fill this communication gap, BAI partnered with Black community leaders and media organizations — empowering these trusted messengers to dismantle stigma and deliver important health information. Today BAI continues to mobilize and educate Black Americans about HIV/AIDS treatment and care. In addition to his work with BAI, Wilson was appointed to the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS by President Obama, served as a World AIDS Summit delegate, and cofounded the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention.

Admiral Dr. Rachel Levine
In March 2021, Dr. Rachel Levine was appointed the United States Assistant Secretary for Health under President Biden — making her the nation’s highest-ranking openly transgender official. Just a few months later, she became a four-star admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Earlier in her career, Dr. Levine worked as a pediatrician and clinical researcher. She also served as Pennsylvania’s Physician General and Secretary of Health, where she worked to address the state’s opioid crisis, improve maternal health, and slow the spread of COVID-19. Reflecting on her career, Dr. Levine said, “I really feel that everything I’ve ever done … has all led to this moment in terms of helping the nation through this greatest public health crisis that we have faced in over a hundred years.”

We found so many inspiring stories of LGBTQ+ public health pioneers — and we wish we could have included them all! If you have a story to share, tweet us @CommunicateHlth or respond to this email. We’d ❤️ to hear from you!

The bottom line: Let’s honor LGBTQ+ people who have made key contributions to public health — this month and every month.

Tweet about it: As #PrideMonth starts to wind down, we’re celebrating LGBTQ+ people who have helped shape #PublicHealth, #HealthComm, and #HealthEd: https://bit.ly/3Out9QM

Identity Is Not a Preference

Two doodles are wearing name tags that say, “Hello! My preferred pronouns are,” with the “preferred” crossed out. One has written in “she/her” and the other has written “they/them.”

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, we’re proud to be an LGBTQ+-owned organization — and we always look forward to Pride Month, which kicked off last week! Pride is all about acceptance, equity, celebrating the work of LGBTQ+ people, and raising awareness of issues that affect LGBTQ+ communities.

And as you doubtless know, dear readers, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about inclusive, respectful language — and what that means for health communicators like us. So we thought this was a great time to bring you a very simple — but very important — tip about gender pronouns.

Ever heard a person ask about someone’s “preferred pronouns”? Or maybe you’ve asked that yourself — many of us have. As a health comm professional, you may have even written “preferred pronouns” in a survey or some other health-related form collecting personal information. And while this is probably almost always well-intentioned — and is certainly an improvement from assuming we know someone’s pronouns based on how they look — it still presents a problem.

It’s the “preferred” that’s the issue here. Introducing “preferred” to this equation basically implies that using the correct pronouns to talk about someone is optional — a matter of preference. Think about it: Generally speaking, even if you prefer one thing, you’re likely still okay with an alternative (“I like plain coffee, but I prefer my coffee with milk”).

Part of a person’s actual identity is simply not on the same level as your morning caffeine choice. There’s nothing “preferred” about it. Someone’s pronouns are, factually, their pronouns — and using them correctly demonstrates respect for that person.

So save your questions about “preference” for true matters of, you know, preference! Keep it simple by asking, “What are your pronouns?” 

We know we don’t have to tell you, dear readers, but words are tremendously powerful. And in our line of work, we have a real responsibility to communicate health information with empathy. Dropping the loaded qualifier from “preferred pronouns” is one small step we can take to do better.

The bottom line: A person’s identity is not a preference. When you’re asking or writing about pronouns, drop the “preferred.”

Tweet about it: A person’s identity is not a preference. It’s time to drop “preferred pronouns” once and for all, says @CommunicateHlth: https://bit.ly/3QeMneu #HealthComm #HealthLit

Things We ❤️: Your Local Epidemiologist

A doodle gestures toward a screenshot of Your Local Epidemiologist on a computer screen

You know we ❤️ sharing helpful resources for health communicators. Today we’re shining the spotlight on Your Local Epidemiologist (YLE), a Substack newsletter from epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina.

In each issue of YLE, Dr. Jetelina breaks down the latest COVID-19 news and other timely public health topics, explaining the data behind the headlines. And this can be extremely helpful for people like us, dear readers. Turns out that it’s much easier to write plain language content about data-informed things when we understand said data ourselves.

In the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Jetelina started writing COVID-19 news updates for her students and colleagues at the University of Texas. Almost 3 years later, YLE has expanded to cover more public health topics and become a worldwide resource, reaching 125 million people in 150 countries!

In this politically polarized time, we ❤️ how Dr. Jetelina focuses on the science, demystifying daunting data points. YLE is especially helpful for communicators who don’t have much experience analyzing data or don’t come from traditional public health backgrounds.

You can sign up for emails or browse past issues of YLE on Substack. Here are a couple of our recent favorites if you want to a good place to start:

The bottom line: Check out Your Local Epidemiologist to understand the science behind the latest COVID-19 news and other timely public health topics.

Tweet about it: In Your Local Epidemiologist, @dr_kkjetelina breaks down the science behind timely #PublicHealth topics. It’s a great resource for #HealthComm folks, says @CommunicateHlth: https://bit.ly/3tcQjCO

The American Epidemic of Gun Violence

Group of somber doodles holding a banner that says, “enough is enough”

Just weeks after the horrific racially motivated shooting in Buffalo, New York, we’re heartbroken by this week’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The trauma and grief that the Uvalde community is facing after the slaughter of 19 children and 2 teachers is unimaginable.

In 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States. It was also the year the world shut down as the pandemic took hold. There was so much uncertainty, so many questions that we just didn’t have answers to. We needed public health data, and time to figure out what that data meant. Particularly before vaccines, there were times when it was hard to know the right thing to do.

That uncertainty is one of the key differences that sets the COVID pandemic apart from another public health crisis responsible for tremendous loss of lives: the American gun violence epidemic.

When it comes to gun violence, we know the answers to all the hard questions. We have the data. We know that the United States has the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. We know that more guns = more gun deaths. We know what happens when other countries pass gun control legislation. We know exactly the right thing to do.

Also note that America’s gun violence problem is an epidemic, not a pandemic. That’s because it’s specific to the United States. No other high-income country has this problem. It only happens here.

As Senator Chris Murphy said in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor the day of the shooting: “Nowhere else do little kids go to school thinking they might be shot that day. Nowhere else do parents have to talk to their kids, as I have had to do, about why they got locked into a bathroom and told to be quiet for 5 minutes just in case a bad man entered that building. Nowhere else does that happen except here in the United States of America, and it is a choice — it is our choice to let it continue.”

This is an important time to be part of the public health community. Let’s use our knowledge and our voices — not our thoughts and prayers — to fight for a safer tomorrow.

Tweet about it: #GunViolence in the United States is a #PublicHealth crisis. As public health professionals, we must use our knowledge and our voices to fight for a safer future. https://bit.ly/38LrLdi @CommunicateHlth

A Slice of Audience, Please

Group of doodles with cats on their heads under a banner that reads, “Audience Segmentation”

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, we’ve been talking a lot about audience segmentation lately. New to the term, dear readers? Not to worry! In a nutshell, audience segmentation is a way to narrow down the audience for your health messages from a really big group — like “the general public” — to a much smaller one. (You might remember our post about writing for your audience — it’s one of our favorite things to nerd out over!)

Identifying a specific group as your audience helps you focus your messages on the things they care about. That makes them more likely to pay attention — and more likely to take your advice about a health behavior.

Say you’re writing a series of PSAs about how to prevent late-stage cat head. Your first step is to find out who your audience is — who are the people most at risk of late-stage cat head and what are their information needs? But audience segmentation isn’t just about making your priority audience specific. It’s also about choosing which group (or audience segment, if you will) could benefit the most from getting health information. Ask yourself: Who’s been overlooked by other communications?

You can segment your audience based on demographic factors — like age, gender, level of education, income, or where they live. One way to find that information is by looking at public health data, like from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. But you also want to look at things that may be less clear-cut. For example:

  • Cultural factors — people’s native or preferred language, cultural heritage, or religious beliefs
  • Behavioral factors — how people get information, how they make choices about their health, and how willing they are to change their behavior
  • Other factors that play a big role in people’s lives — like values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles

Just because 2 people are roughly the same age and have a similar income, it doesn’t mean they care about the same things. And that means the way they respond (or don’t respond) to messages about their health will be different.

These things also give you clues about where to place your messages so your audience will see them. After all, in today’s digital environment, it seems like everything’s tailored to us — you know, you google “Does cat head cause runny nose?” and an ad for allergy medicine pops up in your Facebook feed.

So how do you find out what it is your audience cares about? The best way is… wait for it… to ask them! There are lots of ways to gather insights from folks — focus groups, in-depth interviews, or online surveys. And if you don’t have the budget for formative research, try reaching out to your professional or social circle to gut check your ideas and assumptions.

However you go about learning more about your priority audience, the outcome is the same. Audience segmentation helps health communicators make products that resonate with our audiences — and that’s a win for everyone.

The bottom line: Audience segmentation is a great way to narrow down who you want to reach so you can focus on the things they care about.

Tweet about it: Use audience segmentation to narrow down who you want to reach — so you can focus on the things they care about, says @CommunicateHlth: https://bit.ly/3w4DfRL #HealthLit

Health Literacy Saves Lives: We Kid(ney) You Not

Kidney doodle holding a sign that says "Health Literacy Saves Lives!"

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, communicating health information is the heart of our work. Regular readers of our blog may know that we try to keep it light when we can (with health literacy tips from Elmo or an ode to emojis, for example), but we always keep in mind why we do what we do: For some people, health literacy is literally lifesaving.

Take kidney disease. According to recent data, there are about 90,000 people on the kidney transplant waitlist, but only about 24,000 transplants happen each year. And you might assume that once a person is placed on the waitlist, all they have to do is sit tight until a kidney is available… right? But that’s not always the case — thousands of people die waiting for kidney transplants each year. People who urgently need a transplant simply may not be able to wait out the waitlist.

Some health organizations provide tips for people with kidney disease on how to launch their own campaign to find a living kidney donor — someone who’ll donate a kidney to them directly so they don’t have to stay on the waitlist. In these cases, the patient is often the one spreading the word on social media, talking to potential donors about the process, and coordinating with the transplant center — all while managing their health care.

Clearly, it’s not ideal to put people in the position of having to ask friends and family members for a life-saving organ. And this unfortunate situation reminds us just how critical health literacy is. Essentially, it seems people with kidney disease need superhero-level health literacy skills just to stay alive. Studies have shown that people with high health literacy skills are more likely to be considered for transplants and have better long-term health outcomes.

But here’s a thought: What if we designed health systems and health information so that people don’t have to have superhero-level health literacy skills to be healthy and well? Clearly there are some big structural issues at play here. But as health communicators we hope you see and feel the value of prioritizing health literacy in your work. This could look like:

  • Designing easy-to-understand doctor’s office intake forms — and making them available in a variety of formats
  • Using tools like decision aids to help people navigate tricky health decisions
  • Trying the teach-back method to make sure people understand their next steps
  • Communicating with empathy every time

The bottom line: For some people with kidney disease, health literacy can be the difference between life and death. As health communicators, we can help change that.

Tweet about it: For some people with #KidneyDisease, #HealthLiteracy can be the difference between life and death. As #HealthComm professionals, we can help change that, says @CommunicateHlth: https://bit.ly/3MzXn3J

3 Verbs You Just Don’t Need in Health Comm

Alt text: doodle throwing the word “administer”, “ensure” and “utilize” into a trash bin

As you know, we have a long history at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ of calling out jargon terms and advocating for simpler alternatives. Over the years, we’ve covered everything from technical medical terms like “hypertension” to public health mainstays like “morbidity and mortality” to sneakily tricky words like “detect.”

This week, we’re keeping it simple (our fave!) and presenting you with 3 verbs you can cut from your plain language vocabulary once and for all. They’re all common in health comm, and they all have one-to-one swaps — which means you really never need to use them. Thrilling, isn’t it? We hope you enjoy!

First up, we have “administer.” This one pops up in vaccine communication all the time, but we think it’s about time for that to stop. Why? Because consumers just don’t need to hear it when you can use the much shorter and simpler “give” instead.

  • Out: Doctors have administered about a million doses of the vaccine.
  • In: Doctors have given about a million doses of the vaccine.

Moving right along, let’s talk about “ensure” for a moment, shall we? Now, “ensure” might seem like a pretty plain language term. But readers with limited literacy or health literacy skills may confuse it with something related to health insurance (or a nutrient-boosting beverage option!), so why risk it? We say just use “make sure.”

  • Out: Read the instructions carefully to ensure you understand how to take the medicine.
  • In: Read the instructions carefully to make sure you understand how to take the medicine.

And we’ve saved the best (or our least favorite?) for last: good old “utilize.” And frankly, dear readers, we’d suggest dropping this one from your vocabulary entirely — not just from your plain language health content. It just seems so unnecessary when you consider that “use” does the exact same job — with a third of the syllables!

  • Out: The doctor may utilize blood tests to make a diagnosis.
  • [Do we even have to write it?!]

The bottom line: “Administer,” “ensure,” and “utilize” have no place in your plain language health content — they’re just too easy to swap out!

Tweet about it: This week, @CommunicateHlth brings you 3 verbs you can drop from your #PlainLanguage health writing once and for all: https://bit.ly/3JKMLgx #HealthLit #HealthComm

Explaining “Endemic”

Two doodles sit on a couch watching the news. The newscaster says, “Cat head will likely become endemic.” The doodles are confused. One says, “Pandemic?” The other says, “Epidemic?”

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, we’ve been hearing the term “endemic” a lot lately. (As in, “Is COVID endemic yet?”) We’ve also noticed that, like with so many things COVID, many people are confused about the term. And for good reason! People often misuse it, and it’s easy to mix it up with “epidemic.” Plus, “endemic” starts with the word “end” — which makes it sound like a pretty good thing right about now.

As health communicators, we can help by clearly explaining what “endemic” means — and doesn’t mean — to our audiences. Let’s start with the gist: A disease is endemic if people in a particular area continue to get it — that is, it never completely goes away — but it’s predictable. In other words, a relatively steady number of people in a specific place get the disease, and experts have a pretty good idea how it will play out.

Think of the flu. Most flu strains are endemic in most places, meaning they never go away entirely, but we can be pretty sure when cases will rise (you know, flu season) and then fall again. The flu example is also a good way to demonstrate what “endemic” doesn’t mean — specifically, that it does not mean harmless. The flu causes tens of thousands of deaths a year, making it a serious public health issue.

It can also be helpful to explain that it’s still possible to have an outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic of an endemic disease. Once COVID becomes endemic, this could happen if, say, a new variant emerges and current vaccines don’t offer enough immunity. (Remember the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009?)

So when will COVID become endemic, you ask? Unfortunately, dear readers, no one knows. We’re not there yet because experts aren’t able to accurately predict what will happen next, mostly due to the possibility of new variants. It’s also good to keep in mind that the “when” will probably vary from place to place. And while some people might find this uncertainty frustrating, the good news is that we do know how to protect ourselves — like with vaccines, masks, and testing.

The bottom line: Experts believe COVID will become endemic. So let’s help people understand what that does — and doesn’t — mean.

Tweet about it: Everyone’s throwing around the term “endemic” lately! Let’s make sure people understand what it does — and doesn’t — mean, says @CommunicateHlth: https://bit.ly/3uYkVYV #HealthLit

Things We (Really, Really) ❤️: Empathy in Health Comm

Doodle on stage with a microphone pointing to audience shouting “I see you! I see you! I see all of you!”

This week, we’re bringing you something a little different. CH President Stacy Robison wrote an article that was translated and published in a plain language bulletin from the
Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore called Klarspråk. Since we assume many of you, our dearest readers, do not read Swedish, we wanted to give you an opportunity to check out Stacy’s thoughts here. What follows is a slightly edited English version of the article. Enjoy!

One of the tenets of plain language is to write conversationally. When we write how we talk, we’re more likely to use familiar words and active voice. But there’s another reason to write as if we’re having a conversation, one that’s just as important to the success of our communications: connection.

To create meaningful communications — whether they’re campaigns, websites, or social media messages — we need to understand and care about our audience. In other words, we need to empathize with people.

This is especially important in health communication. In the United States, when we talk about health literacy, we often cite the statistic that 90 percent of adults struggle with complex health information. While this is correct, it frames the “problem” as an individual deficit. If we’re approaching this from a place of empathy, then we might reconsider — if the “problem” affects 90 percent of people, maybe it’s not them… Maybe it’s us!

In health care, studies show that empathy can improve patients’ emotional health, symptoms, and physiologic responses and increase medication adherence. This link between empathy and adherence is particularly fascinating. Another way to look at it is: feeling seen and heard makes people more likely to listen to and follow a recommended course of action. Why? Because empathy builds trust. And because negative emotions like fear and shame can make us feel invisible and get in the way of clear thinking and informed decision-making.

So what does this mean for our writing? One of the primary ways we express empathy is through language. Choosing familiar words, acknowledging emotion, and using inclusive language can go a long way toward building trust. After all, we’re not writing into a void. There are people on the other side of our words! Rather than talking down to them, let’s meet them where they are, use their language, and put ourselves in their shoes.

When we reject the stereotype of the noncompliant patient, when we refuse to stigmatize, or when we simply change a pronoun in our writing — we send a powerful message to our readers. A message more powerful than the most compelling statistics or the flashiest marketing campaigns. The message is: I see you.

Tweet about it: This week, @CommunicateHlth is bringing you thoughts on the importance of #empathy in #HealthComm from President Stacy Robison: https://bit.ly/3wTgNMc #HealthLit

Elmo’s Wonderful World of… Health Literacy Tips?

Family of doodles watching Sesame Street’s Elmo with a toothbrush on the television

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, we’re big fans of Sesame Street — which has been serving up clear, actionable educational messaging for longer than many of us have been, well, doing anything at all! Today we’re digging a little deeper into the world of one Muppet in particular. One who loves to talk about himself in the third person. He’s also been known to sing with famous people and to pop up on the occasional late-night talk show. (He’s very popular.) That’s right, we’re talking about the fan-favorite, furry friend-to-all Elmo.

Elmo has done all sorts of things to bring about learning and laughing since he first showed up on Sesame Street in 1984. And with Elmo’s World, his Sesame Street segment for toddlers, he helps prepare our littlest learners for the real world by exploring topics like how to brush your teeth or ride a bike. But we think the best part of Elmo’s World isn’t what he’s teaching kids but rather how he’s teaching them. You see, Elmo is a pro at teaching kids to navigate new and unfamiliar topics — in other words, how to learn in the first place.

And this brings us to the fact that Elmo’s approach to teaching his audience about a topic that’s unfamiliar to them holds some valuable lessons for health communicators. So the next time you’re writing about a tricky or in-the-weeds health topic, take a little trip to Elmo’s World to leverage his tips for helping your audience learn something new.

  • Answer common questions. Elmo likes to encourage his viewers to pause and talk it out when they’re confused or not sure about something. We couldn’t agree more, which is why we often use a Q&A format to structure our health content. Putting ourselves in people’s shoes by thinking through their potential questions is a powerful health comm strategy. Just be sure to use questions someone would actually ask (as opposed to forcing it for the sake of the format) and answer the questions you’ve raised right away.
  • Offer credible sources to learn more. Elmo knows that kids might want to learn more than what he can teach in a few minutes, so he encourages them to find trusted sources that can provide more information. Chances are, you also won’t be able to cover every single fact about a complicated health topic in a single material. This is exactly why we’re so into the “bite, snack, meal” approach to writing — it helps us package our content into different “serving sizes” based on what we know about our audience.
  • Encourage conversations and knowledge sharing. Elmo reminds kids that sharing what they learn can lead to meaningful conversations with people in their lives. Again, we agree! That’s some of the thinking behind tried-and-true communication strategies like the teach-back method, which can be super helpful for health communicators teaching information in real time.
  • Celebrate the wins! As health communicators, we won’t always be around to help our audiences enjoy the triumph of learning something new. But we don’t think that should stop anyone (communicator and communicatee alike!) from celebrating health literacy wins. How? Well, Elmo is fond of a happy dance — and we’re not going to argue with Elmo.

The bottom line: Take a trip to Elmo’s World to find valuable lessons for helping your audiences learn something new.

Tweet about it: .@CommunicateHlth invites you to visit Elmo’s World to discover valuable #HealthLit lessons for helping your audiences learn something new: https://bit.ly/3N1Pzso