On Public Health Security - June 2013

Taking lessons from the media: communicating complex messages quickly and effectively.

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June 2013

On Public Health Security

Providing a Gateway to National Public Health Security Partnerships

Dr. Ali S. Khan

Dear Partners,

In late 2009, after steering our country through the H1N1 pandemic as Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Richard Besser took on a new role as Chief Health and Medical Editor at ABC News.  He transitioned from leading the nation’s premier public health agency to reporting critical health issues on the morning and evening news.  Despite his new title, his top priority is still the protection of America’s health.

Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News speaks at CDC.

Last month I had the pleasure of hosting my former colleague and predecessor as Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (then Coordinating Office for Terrorism Prevention and Emergency Response) at CDC for a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd.  Dr. Besser brought keen insights gained from perspectives in front of and behind the camera.

Dr. Besser worked on issues of global and national significance throughout his career in public health.   Now, he tells stories, informing the American public on a range of topics from chronic conditions to potential pandemics.  Last month, for example, Dr. Besser was again at the forefront of covering an emerging outbreak, and he faced a difficult challenge:

  • Catch the interest of his audience
  • Educate them about the emerging public health threat posed by H7N9 Avian Influenza
  • Convey the relevance of a complicated virus on the other side of the world
  • Refrain from inciting panic
  • Accomplish all of this in under two minutes
Quote by Dr. Richard Besser, "Communication is an under-tapped part of what we do in public health."

A saturated news environment demands brevity. Dr. Besser explained that 35 minutes, which previously was a typical briefing for him, now represents 20 different stories. Although my office does not operate under the same constraints, we can learn a lot from his approach to communicating complex information quickly and effectively.

In his remarks, Dr. Besser noted that public health does not always think about communication as part of our toolbox in protecting the public’s health. We must embrace active communication and examine the methods we use to reach different audiences. Dr. Besser connects with his viewers though the creation of character-driven journeys, which convey health information throughout a narrative arc. The audience empathizes with individuals in his pieces, and they receive their health information through a human connection with the protagonists. This is a very different form of communication than reading official guidance documents.

At PHPR, we seek to improve communication with our broad range of audiences, including:

  • The American public
  • Our traditional public health sector partners
  • New private sector partners

Our blogs tell the personal side of preparedness and response and  a series of infographics connects the public and prepares them for specific hazards.  As Dr. Besser said, we need to think about the questions that our neighbors ask and communicate in a conversational tone to reach a broad audience.

We are launching a new website to engage a wide spectrum of current and potential partners in the nongovernmental and private sectors.  This website, which will go live later this month, will communicate with the preparedness and response community and keep our partners current on our latest initiatives.

Finally, our Emergency Operations Center simultaneously responded to three public health events this month: H7N9 Avian Influenza,  Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and  global polio eradication.  CDC is keeping the public, health practitioners, and other professionals up to date via a range of communication channels including our website, press briefings, and travel notices.

Dr. Besser knows the importance of communicating with a range of stakeholders from his tenure overseeing the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, and he took those lessons with him to his new role on your TV screen.  We’re fortunate to learn from him as we continue to refine our own communication efforts to reach a host of audiences in order to protect the Nation’s health security.

Thank you,

Ali S. Khan, MD MPH
Assistant Surgeon General (retired) & Director
Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response
DHHS/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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CDC to Host Business Health Executive Quarterly Calls

CDC is pleased to announce its first Quarterly Business Health Executive Call on June 27, 2013 at 2:30pm EDT. The purpose of these calls is to increase communication with business sector partners and open opportunities for further interaction between CDC and the private sector.  Calls will provide corporate leaders with updates on current issues, discussions about CDC’s portfolio, access to question and answer sessions with CDC experts, and the ability to engage in dialogue with other executives in the health field.  The first call will feature updates on H7N9 and MERS, by Rear Admiral Stephen C. Redd, MD  and Dr. David Swerdlow, respectively.  The call will also include an overview of CDC’s Center for Global Health.

Email to receive call log on information: cdcbizsectorpartners@cdc.gov


CDC to Fund Improvements to Electronic Death Registration Systems

In late May, CDC added two Requests for Task Order Proposals (RFTP) under the auspices of the 2012-2016 Vital Statistics Cooperative Program (VSCP) to increase states’ development and uptake of electronic death registration systems.  The RFTPs identify two strategies to enhance the coverage of electronic death registration systems: 1) increase physician use of electronic death registration systems; and 2) create a model state system.  Among many other benefits, electronic death registration systems have the potential to provide near-real-time mortality surveillance during public health emergencies.  The RFTPs are the first steps of a 5-year initiative to create a national network of enhanced electronic death registration systems.  CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and the National Center for Health Statistics are jointly implementing the first phase.  During subsequent phases, they will look to add additional federal partners to the project.


National Health Security Preparedness Index Update

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), in partnership with CDC, is coordinating the development of the National Health Security Preparedness Index (NHSPI).  The two-month review and comment period for state health officials on the developmental draft of the NHSPI wrapped up May 31, 2013.  For those partners outside of state health departments, remember you can visit the NHSPI website and click on the Index Updates section to learn more and provide your feedback to help shape the future of the Index.  


So What? Telling a Compelling Story

CDC is requesting Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval to collect information from non-federal partners so that we can do a better job at conveying the important work of all our partners in the preparedness community, especially those on the front-lines at state and local health departments.  On May 28, 2013, the Federal Register published our 60-day notice.  Written comments should be received within 60 days of this notice.


CDC’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins Develops Guidelines for Laboratories Working with H7N9

The Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT) in CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response is responsible for the CDC Etiologic Agent Import Permit Program, which regulates the importation into the United States of infectious biological agents that cause disease in humans.  In anticipation of public health and research laboratories requesting importation of the novel H7N9 virus for research purposes, DSAT developed Interim Risk Assessment and Biosafety Level Recommendations to ensure laboratories have the appropriate guidance to work safely with this novel virus.