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Healthcare’s PR Problem: Authentic Communication in the Post-Pandemic Era

This year’s World Health Day should have, by all means, been a victory lap. After all, the world managed to create an array of COVID-19 vaccines roughly a year into the pandemic, crushing the previous vaccine development record of four years. This success story bodes well for the future. “It shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources,” says Dan Barouch, director of the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research.

It’s easy to get carried away with the implications of what this could mean for our capacity to tackle massive killers like malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, not to mention new pandemics. But just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, our scientific advances will only prove as useful as the levels of public trust in them, and for that, communication is key.

The U.S. response to COVID-19 has been greatly hampered by propaganda and misinformation, from outright refusals to believe the pandemic was real to unfounded claims about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. Even worse, by the time vaccines became available, one out of five Americans were already convinced they weren’t safe.

JCI has been heavily involved with health and biotech causes over the past year, from increasing access to free COVID-19 testing sites in communities of color to coordinating a messaging campaign for ongoing research projects. Through it all, there have been several consistent principles that have proven key to today’s health and healthcare communications:

  1. Representative Voices - For better or worse, medical professionals are no longer enough when it comes to convincing people. Audiences want to hear from community influencers at their level, ranging from parents to small business owners, who can testify that a particular approach works for everyday people like them. The science of the matter needs to be presented alongside empathy and relatability. The more localized the approach, the better.

  2. Addressing Historical Disparities - It’s not a coincidence that marginalized communities—including queer Americans, women, and residents of color—tend to have lower rates of trust toward medical professionals. There is a long history of medical racism and prejudice that has to be acknowledged before it can be repaired. What’s more, these communities can tell when they’re being talked at rather than to, so approaching with a genuine willingness to gather and implement feedback goes a long way.

  3. Constant and Incremental Communication - Campaigns must expose individuals to their message in increments, and do so multiple times over an extended period of time rather than in a single barrage. Only by building these long-term relationships can we change attitudes and social norms.

With these tenets in mind, JCI has been able to successfully engage with residents around health and healthcare, but our approach is still far from the national norm. For U.S. institutions to recapture public trust and authority, it’s not simply a matter of having the most cutting-edge technology or the most brilliant minds. Our future healthcare capabilities depend on our grasp of communications, and for that, reform can’t come quickly enough.


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