The role of creative nonfiction in public health communication

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Going into the 2016 National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing & Media (NCHCMM), I really didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I was far more excited about the dining prospects in Atlanta than the conference content (and Atlanta has not disappointed–the White Oak Kitchen and Sotto Sotto were both outstanding).

As the communications director for a CDC-funded initiative to lower the incidence of chronic disease, reduce health disparities, and strengthen clinical-community linkages, I am charged with sharing the story of our project with our community, with our healthcare partners, and with the CDC. Traditionally, health messaging has centered around the latest statistics and warnings against harmful lifestyle behaviors…a tactic which, rather than informing and engaging audiences, more often results in confusion, disinterest, and desensitization to public health issues. Having a background in creative writing and little training in public health only exacerbates my frustration. How do I tell our story in a compelling, engaging way that highlights the importance of our work without resorting to pie charts and graphs?

The answer, it turned out, would be revealed in the very first session I attended. Going into “Innovative Approaches to Chronic Disease Prevention,” I expected the usual presentations on social media campaigns and digital audience engagement. But when Lise Saffran, the third and last presenter of the session, was introduced as the director of the Master of Public Health program at the University of Missouri and a novelist, I sat up straight in my chair. In a nutshell, Saffran talked about the importance of storytelling in the public health sector and how approaching messaging from a creative perspective is key to engaging audiences while raising awareness of important health issues. Students in her capstone course are asked to create a fictional “patient,” an exercise designed to develop empathy by creating a relatable character whom the public could identify with.

For me, a creative nonfiction writer at heart, the idea of using storytelling to inform and educate the public about current health issues was a true “a-ha” moment. I realized that instead of trying to force my writing style to conform to the subject of public health, I should be incorporating my storytelling abilities into my health communication efforts. Once it was suggested to me, the idea seemed so obvious that I’m almost embarrassed I hadn’t realized it earlier. Thank you, Lise, for the dope slap.

Interested in learning more about the role of creative nonfiction in health communication? Check out this article written by Lise for the journal Medical Humanities.

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