Keep the ‘public’ in public health!

Last week the U.S Surgeon General issued an advisory that declared ‘misinformation as a public health threat.’ In a blue document with massive bold letters in white, he argued that we need to begin the process of confronting misinformation by ‘building a healthy information environment.’ I was intrigued and kept scrolling down the document to understand for myself what he meant by the terms ‘a healthy information environment.’

I also welcomed the invitation to ‘limit the spread of health information as a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of society effort.’ His words. The table of contents seemed easy to follow with suggestions on the ‘what’ people can do whether as individuals or educators or journalists or even funders and of course the government. There was even a ‘where do we go from here’ section that increased my curiosity with the report. But from the first page, the background, the report lost me and I am sure the public. None of this centered the ‘public’ in public health.

There is a reason why health misinformation is so rampart these days and it has nothing to do with long backgrounds, even those focused on correct health information. We fail and continue to fail the ‘public’ if the words we use to speak to ‘public’ doesn’t include language or even tools that makes sense to the ‘public.’ I wanted to root for this document because of the seriousness of the topic, because this is literally a life and death matter and people, black and brown lives are dying everyday because of health misinformation.

Then it dawned on me, if I took a camera and walked down the streets of Harlem or Newark, or Augusta, or Pittsburgh, or even went to stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, would people be able to tell me what if anything they remembered from the Surgeon General’s advisory. Would they even know it exists?

There in lies the dilemma with health misinformation. While the public health experts are so focused on what it is or what it is not, the ‘public’ is focused on the why in the forms of stories they pass on to each other, through words and languages and other mediums that make sense to the ‘public.’ There is a reason why social media is widespread and content is viewed as powerful. People are expecting from public health, serious comments about their lives using tools and language that make sense to the ‘public,’ that speak to the ‘why.’ They are not expecting the ‘what.’ They are expecting connections, truths, even art and spoken words that say things important to help them with life, their health. The sooner we understand the ‘why’ of health information, the quicker we can begin to center the ‘public’ in public health. This is what is meant by public health to me these days, a deliberate focus on the public’s health, not by us the experts but by the public first.

We spend too much time focused on the ‘what’ of health that we forget the ‘why’ in public. There is a reason why stories live on long after the storyteller has ended the story. We can start there by bringing back stories to public health. Poetry too. As a tool, whether spoken or listened too, poetry can humanize us, make us whole, both emotionally and intellectually. Art can do the same. Art for and by the public can be intentional and life-sustaining with centering the public in public health. While letters to the public, like a ‘Dear Public Health’ can help the public confront the worst so as to be free to experience the best that is unshakable in public health, the ‘public.’

It is always about the ‘public’ after all. Our future depends on listening, seeing, feeling, daring even to center the ‘public’ in public health. We are all amplified when we center the ‘public’ in public health. That should have been the main crux of the advisory, a foundation through which to dismantle the public health threat that is health misinformation. We have miles to go but if we want to end this war, as it’s a war to, with casualties increasing everyday, the ongoing pandemic being a clear example, then we have got to bring back the ‘public’ in public health.

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