The need for strong and accurate public health reporting has never been greater. How closely U.S. healthcare and public health systems partner together-ultimately in tandem with journalists and the media-will largely determine the health and well-being of Americans.
My contribution, however small, to building this communication bridge was recently recognized when I was selected as one of eight journalists to study at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. As a Knight Public Health Journalism Fellow, I participated in a rigorous four-month fellowship program to study epidemiology and public health at the CDC. Now in its fourth year, the program's purpose is to encourage better reporting on public health issues. Never before has the U.S. had such responsibility in safeguarding public health and protecting people from health threats both at home and abroad.
In a year that saw swift and decisive action to control emerging infectious disease outbreaks-such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, monkeypox and West Nile virus-health officials devoted increased efforts to create and carry out programs to reduce illness and death from chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma and obesity.
As healthcare and public health workers faced the federal government's voluntary smallpox vaccination campaign and additional initiatives were launched to promote proper antibiotic use in healthcare settings, workplace health and HIV and injury prevention, the press followed suit by putting faces to the developments. The nation saw there was much more to public health than what routinely had made the nightly news, as new and different public health threats began to share top media billing alongside bioterrorism. Journalists, like their healthcare and public health partners, became first responders.
My stint at the CDC began in June with advanced studies in biostatistics and epidemiology methodology, including training with members of the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service. Over the past 50 years, EIS officers, the nation's disease detectives, have played a pivotal role in combating the root causes of major epidemics. As I accompanied these specialists in the field, I became far more aware of the ongoing challenges in public health communication among providers, public health officials and the press.
As the CDC begins to implement more science-based programs in partnership with state and local health agencies and healthcare organizations, the question becomes: How can healthcare leaders and workers, scientists, journalists, communicators and citizens work together to establish trust and mutual respect so that essential and accurate health messages are delivered to the community to increase knowledge and improve health status? The challenge seems simple and yet there are no cookie-cutter answers. Healthcare and public health are local phenomena and as such are delivered in the context of the needs of each diverse community or jurisdiction.
On many occasions, I watched in surprise as media outlets covering my research teams' work reported beyond the available science and data, drew inappropriate causal relationships or incorrectly explained basic health concepts. However, these omissions and oversights were not always because of media slip-ups. Often the misinformation resulted from a communication disconnect between providers and local public health officials.
During my time with the CDC, I participated in the official launch of the World Trade Center Health Registry, a $20 million federal project that will provide a unified database for research to assess injuries, illnesses and diseases afflicting those individuals most directly exposed to the World Trade Center collapse. The CDC staff, working with healthcare providers in New York, is helping thousands of patients get the care they need to deal with never-before-seen physical ailments and the emotional fallout of Sept. 11, 2001.
Since the terrorist attacks, hospitals and healthcare systems have made remarkable strides toward cementing critical relationships with local, regional and state public health agencies and the CDC. A new public health infrastructure continues to take shape, led by the CDC and its $7 billion budget, which includes more than $153 million for public health improvement and $1.235 billion for terrorism preparedness.
In fiscal 2003, the CDC provided about $5 billion to state and local health organizations, academic institutions and other public health partners. More than 2,700 public health grants were awarded to upwards of 1,800 different external organizations. Still, more can be done to continue the dialogue between providers and the press to form best practices for improved public health communication.
I believe that the CDC's philosophy-for public health to be effective, it must be close to the public-mirrors my responsibility as a journalist. I feel privileged to have been at the CDC during this important time in the nation's public health history and I am pleased to be able to bring the information back to Modern Healthcare to accurately and effectively communicate the most important developments to our readers.
Julie Piotrowski is a reporter for Modern Healthcare. Based in New York, she covers public health and post-acute care.