The shift from health researcher to health communicator

Written by Suraj Arshanapally, MPH, ORISE Health Communication Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and alumnus of the Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic & Global Health Track

I find public health communication to be one of the most exciting fields to work in. With the fast-paced nature of social media and digital analytics, I continuously discover creative ways to leverage these tools to improve the health of our communities.

I currently work on a program that helps parents and health care providers support early child development. I lead projects that increase our program’s reach through social media, digital marketing, and health messaging.

In 2016, I participated in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program. Under the remarkable mentorship of Dr. Kathleen Bucholz and Dr. Kimberly Werner, I strengthened my skills in cultural competency, quantitative data analysis, and technical writing. Even though my public health career has shifted from psychiatric epidemiology, I still use these three skills in my work as a health communicator, as explained in this article.

First, cultural competency – the ability to address the social and cultural needs of a particular community – was a primary focus of my research. I investigated the negative mental health outcomes that are connected with racial discrimination, specifically among African American communities. As I learned more about the complex public health, sociological, and psychiatric nature of this issue, it challenged me to consider how I could translate these findings in a culturally appropriate manner. I use these types of skills in my current role as a health communicator because I find that health messages are most effective when social and cultural barriers are addressed.

Second, quantitative data analysis is an excellent cross cutting skill. During my internship, I used principles from epidemiology and biostatistics to examine a large database of mental health variables. Now, I use a similar analytical mindset to investigate health communication data, which typically includes digital media and website analytics, mobile app downloads, and health message testing. I enjoy using these techniques to draw data-driven conclusions about our program’s impact.

Finally, technical writing plays an important role in academic research. Following my data analysis, I co-developed a manuscript on the association between racial discrimination and suicidality among African American adolescents and young adults*. This experience challenged me to write for a technical audience, which was not a strength of mine prior to the internship. While this shaped my own technical writing abilities, I also learned how to effectively read and synthesize research papers. Understanding how to review and translate research findings in ways that are appropriate and actionable is beneficial for health communicators to learn.

While this article only discusses three skills that I obtained from my research internship, there are many others that I use in my current work. I truly enjoy working at the intersection of digital media and public health, and look forward to continue finding creative communication solutions to public health problems.

*Arshanapally, S., Werner, K. B., Sartor, C. E., & Bucholz, K. K. (2018). The Association Between Racial Discrimination and Suicidality among African-American Adolescents and Young Adults. Archives of suicide research, 22(4), 584-595.