Updated: May 16
Recently we had Chelsea Dade of Communicate for Health Justice as a guest on the 52 Weeks of Health Equity podcast. Chelsea is a health communication and advocacy professional based in the greater Washington, DC area. Chelsea discussed health communication, what that is, and why it matters. This is an edited and summarized blog of that interview.
I am a health communications and advocacy professional and the creator and executive director of Communicate for Health Justice, which is a Black women-owned millennial-driven communications platform that's mixing equity and social justice concepts into a very little-known field called health communication.
Health communication basically is just the process and study and art of creating messaging for different audiences on different platforms and how we make that equitable.
Ok, so I am thinking like my mom and she would say, don't we already have health communication? I get communication from my doctor all the time. Why is this important? Why is this idea worth sharing?
Mm-hmm. Yeah, and I do agree with your mom in that case. We've always had health communication. The field itself is relatively new. I would say within the past 25 years and it's a subfield of public health and healthcare. Over time, schools of thought have created specialized degree programs because they discovered that there isn't always a lot of attention on the communication aspect of healthcare.
So while we might do it, we don't necessarily study it enough and how to make it better. For me (Chelsea), when I was in school for this in 2017, I found it so creative. I am an artist by trade and have studied the performing arts my whole life. I found the health communication field so interesting and creative. That's why I wanted to be involved in it. I also happened to be a millennial. So I said, okay, well, let me just, you know, try to bring a millennial spin on it. That's kind of how Communicate for Health Justice came to be.
My background is in nursing, and as a nurse, it’s important to educate your patients and communicate well with them. One of the things I remember being told about communicating was to make sure things were written at a fifth-grade reading level or big print, but that was sort of it regarding health communication. It wasn't really a deep dive into if the material was great for our patient population, the images, or even if it had images.
I love that you said, it's the communication piece and the creativity because when we think about health communication, we don't often think that there can be creative aspects to it. It sounds like that's what drew you to the work when you started learning about it, that creative nature to it. Let’s explore that idea a little bit more, can you just go into maybe giving us some examples of what are some creative things you've seen in communication that have made a difference in, or that just pop out to you.
The first thing that pops into my mind is social media. When I started the platform, different healthcare organizations, public health organizations, or public health departments, were slowly getting on Instagram or Twitter. It was a time when being on social media and being in healthcare, I feel, was perhaps looked down upon. There is always that risk (being on social media), perhaps that people feel like, oh, I'm under the microscope for it, which, you know, that's fair. But social media is such an impactful way of reaching people.
An example of that (social media) impact is Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company and Twitter, the social media platform. Recently someone falsely replicated Eli Lilly's Twitter profile and said that insulin would be totally free. This caused the actual Eli Lilly, had to go on Twitter and say, okay, this is not our actual account. But it highlighted cost and access issues and forced them to make significant changes in their insulin pricing. That is an example of the power of social media, people power calling for change on Twitter and on other platforms to improve access to something that is life-saving, which was insulin.
I was actually part of a communications campaign, outside of Communicate for Health Justice, during the pandemic. Many organizations turned to social media to get the word out about the COVID vaccine. Especially regarding protections and educating people about how they can stay safe with a virus that then most of us really knew very little about. People really turned to social media, doctors, healthcare providers, nurses, and they became the voices for educating people about how they can protect themselves during this pandemic using social media platforms. So to me, I see that as a shift, from a time when healthcare didn't feel like I'm trying to be on social media to this pandemic and post where it was like, NO people had to be on here to make sure they're educating folks.
I do want to distinguish that educating people about their health is separate from the health communication piece, but the health communication piece is really who is the messenger. So that's what we saw. We saw more diverse messengers throughout the pandemic, taking ownership of being leaders in their space. And that makes a difference in how people want to even access our healthcare system. A system which can be incredibly stigmatizing for people of color and other marginalized communities. So I would say the pandemic and then, you know, that Eli Lilly example, just to show the power of social media in real-time. That's has been a huge base for Communicate for Health Justice.
Yeah. I love how you talked about social media. I'm on social media, but it's still awkward to me. Social media really is instant, right? You can put something out there and instantaneously; you're communicating it out the world. Years ago, I wondered why more companies weren’t using social media, the way that my teens were to communicate and spread ideas, sort of like a weed. And now you're seeing more of that, as a way to reach people. We have approached a lot of healthcare as the realm of those who are older, that aging people are the ones who need healthcare or people with chronic illnesses. But we understand a little better now that prevention is the key to really living a healthy life. So how do you get people who are not in the doctor's office for some type of medical issue socialized around prevention? We probably need to reach people in different ways so that they can have the same type of equitable practice.
I talked a little bit about how it impacts health. You gave some examples. So where do you think we really need to work on reducing barriers and improving our ability to communicate with those who, like I said, not necessarily sitting in the health area, but who need to get this information? What are some barriers that you see out there?
Yeah, firstly, the lack of trust. I think the lack of trust between, I will probably first say People of Color, and then I'll also say Black folks in our health care system. That lack of trust is very warranted and it goes beyond, of course, the Tuskegee study. Well, it's really technically the CDC, the US, or US prevention something study at Tuskegee. So even the framing there, we frame it as the Tuskegee study.***
It was not necessarily led by Tuskegee, it was just at Tuskegee and it was led by the federal government and it went all the way up to the 1980s. I don't think everyone understands that. So the history's pretty recent. I think addressing the trust issue is really key. I don't think enough parties involved in the healthcare space, whether that is the system itself or the people who make up the system or the patients. I don't know if enough attention is placed on rebuilding trust. I say this as someone in communications and media, it goes beyond just putting faces out there that look like you and me. It's not about always having an image of someone who looks like you. That's important, but what are the words that go along with that image? That's what I try to address.
At Communicate for Health Justice, we've talked about this concept of digital blackface, which essentially is putting out images of Black people across your own advertising. But it might not be a direct reflection of who makes up your own team. It might not be a reflection of the leadership on your team or even the partners that you work with. So it's kind of like a presentation that might not be accurate. And we see it across all different fields. But specifically, I think in this health space, it's hard for some people to kind of look within. Because I think people go in, of course, with good intentions. I think no one's trying to go in and cause harm. Well, I don't want to speak for everybody, but I don't think most people go into this space trying to hurt anybody. Yet, we still need to understand that we all have our internal biases and we need to work through them before trying to help or heal others. Whether that is through direct service, direct clinical care, or by creating communications around it. I believe as someone in communications, you can still hurt someone if you don't do it properly. Maybe you're not directly with that person, but sometimes those images, if stereotypical, stick with you.
This is not a health example, but I remember H&M has had mistakes when it comes to their advertising. There was one moment where they had a child in something like a monkey suit and there was something stereotypical about it. And that's just one example. They've had several. But that sticks with me. And that was years ago.So, you know.
Yeah, I think that we just need to look inward more. We need to do a lot more community-sensing sessions before we kind of jump into working in communities. And there are a lot of great leaders who are leading these efforts. A lot of them, to be totally honest, are Black women. We just need to also make sure we're listening to, you know, Black women, listening to people who have expertise in community building and empathy. Because of our unique experience, you know, I guess speaking for myself in this moment, as a Black woman, Black lady, you know, we are at the intersections of gender and race. That really changes your viewpoint, and I think it does make you very empathetic.
So that's why a lot of Black women make great leaders. I think it's the same thing when it comes to, you know, healthcare and public health. A lot of the leaders that I have, you know, learned from and respect happen to be Black women. I think it's just part of the way that, we bring our lived experience to the work.
So, I think it starts with trust and rebuilding that trust. It's hard to move to other areas without getting to that first.
Yes, it is really important that we start looking at trust and how to rebuild the general public's trust. And that's kind of why I sort of started the Health Equity podcast just to get people talking about it, because I started hearing a lot of similar phrases, right?
I have one friend in particular who would say, they were passionate about a particular thing because they have skin in the game. She's a Black woman, she's a leader and I remember thinking to myself, wow, like she's putting it out there. She cares about this because it matters because of her experiences. I think so many of us, wherever you come from, get motivated by what matters to us.
How can we rebuild trust if we don't also kind of lean into gaining experiences from the communities. Like what do they want? Instead of staying in paternalism, which is where healthcare has been a long time, we need to start bringing communities to the table and having them talk about, well, here's what's important to us. That's a communication thing, right? And we all know, human beings aren't always the greatest communicators.
So tell me a little bit about your organization and how people can get involved or how they can reach out to you.
I do like to mention that Communicate for Health Justice was really created to fill a gap, but also I really had no idea it would grow into something. Now it’s a consultancy business that I operate on a part-time basis. But it was created initially as a blog for kind of my own thoughts. Because I felt like no one was really getting to the equity and social justice elements of this niche space of health communication. I say that because a lot of times, there's so much fear with people starting something new and feeling like no one's gonna care, no one's gonna listen. And I certainly... I certainly... felt that way and a lot of people ended up listening. Way more than I thought. And I hope that encourages people to kind of be creative, everyone has that creative element to them. You just have to kind of sit with it a little bit and, as I say, massage it and you can kind of be amazed to see what you can do from it.
So yeah, Communicate for Health Justice, as I mentioned, it's a communications platform. It's also a space to build power, build power amongst communicators and people who care about communication. It's also open to people who are in health, but also who might have different backgrounds. A lot of people in education, there's a lot of overlap between education and health. People in like, law and social justice and criminal justice. I think sometimes your end goal can be really similar to people in other fields, specifically when you're talking about health issues.
An issue that comes to mind is the Black maternal health crisis. It is showing us that 80, up to 80 percent of maternal deaths from Black women are sometimes because they're just not being listened to by their healthcare providers. This leads to morbidities, them being sick, but ultimately surviving, or mortalities, meaning that they pass away from childbirth or the process before or after. This issue has really brought a lot of folks to the table, people in health, but also people, again, in criminal justice and people all across different fields and industries because we all care about Black women making sure that we are respected throughout this child birthing process.
I also wanted my platform to be a space where everybody felt included, regardless of their background, educational background or just general background. Communicate for Health Justice supporters are very diverse, and I love that because I'm very staunch about who I am as a Black lady in this space, and people across all different backgrounds respect that, and I appreciate that so very much.
Yeah, people can always get involved. The blog itself, as part of Communicate for Health Justice, is always open to entries. The only ask is that we work together, you and me, to really identify the communication barrier or gap within the topic that you'd like to discuss. So for example, if you want to talk about breast cancer awareness, we'll work together on that, but I definitely invite people to join and contribute on the blog. We often have events as well on Instagram too. This year in 2023, I'm trying to do more research reports that look at what we have done in the past and going forward. There's lots of ways to get involved and I really do welcome people to participate. The best way to reach me is probably just through Instagram (direct message).
Thank you so much, Chelsea for sharing your thoughts. We are all about community building and want people to really embrace the idea of access and equity when it comes to health., I appreciate you so much. Please check out the links below to learn more and remember to subscribe and follow our podcast 52 Weeks of Health Equity.
Communicate For Health Justice (Health communication with an equity and social justice kick)
To read more about the Tuskegee Study
***(official name Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, American medical research project that earned notoriety for its unethical experimentation on African American patients in the rural South. The project, which was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) from 1932 to 1972, examined the natural course of untreated syphilis in African American men. Read more https://www.history.com/news/the-infamous-40-year-tuskegee-study)