Helen Osborne:Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud. I’m Helen Osborne, President of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month and your host of Health Literacy Out Loud.
In these podcasts, you get to listen in on my conversations with some pretty amazing people.
Today, I’m talking with Aaron Frechette, whose background is in journalism. Starting as a teenager, Aaron has worked in both radio and newspaper as a reporter and editor.
He also is experienced in facilitating public forums about issues that affect the community. Aaron now brings this wide array of communication skills to his work at the Rhode Island Department of Health.
I met Aaron when he gave a presentation to the New England Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association. He spoke about ways to communicate to the public about environmental concerns, and especially about ticks.
I was so impressed that I invited Aaron to be a guest on this podcast. He readily said yes, though does want to make it clear that he’s speaking for himself and that his views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud, Aaron.
Aaron Frechette:Thanks so much, Helen. It’s great to be with you today.
Helen Osborne:Ticks? Boy, I’ve been bitten a few times. That’s a concern on my mind, and I know you’re also speaking about larger environmental concerns.
From a communications perspective, what are the issues that you’re concerned about, and what do we in health literacy need to know about?
Aaron Frechette:Environmental health is something that really impacts people in their everyday lives, like vector-borne diseases–diseases that are transmitted by insects like ticks and mosquitoes.
Ticks, for instance, can transmit things like Lyme disease, which is a huge concern here in New England especially, and in my home state of Rhode Island, where we have about 900 cases of Lyme disease each year. Rhode Island actually has the fourth highest rate of Lyme disease in the country, so it’s a big concern.
It’s an issue that is literally in everyone’s backyard in New England, and it affects people of all ages, from children to the elderly. Of course, people who spend more time outdoors are more prone to being affected by tick-borne diseases.
Helen Osborne:Can I just ask you a little bit more about this? Our listeners to this podcast come from all over the world. Are ticks an international issue?
Aaron Frechette:They are. Ticks can transmit a variety of diseases. Lyme disease is a particular concern here in the Northeast as well as the Midwest and in parts of Canada. More and more, we’re seeing Lyme disease also in the western United States.
There are also diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which are transmitted by ticks. It’s a disease that we don’t see very much of in New England, but as you can imagine, perhaps by its name, you would find that more in the intermountain west, the Rocky Mountains.
Helen Osborne:Those are vector-borne diseases. When I heard you speak, and I’m just so impressed with it, you were talking about those greater environmental concerns. I’m just thinking about that from a health literacy and communications aspect. I get it that these are factors that affect our lives. Why is this, from your perspective, hard to communicate?
Aaron Frechette:A lot of times, people feel like these are global issues that they have little to no control over.
When you look at the issue of climate change, for instance, it’s controversial, for better or worse. Some people are skeptical that climate change is man-made, but almost everyone can agree that climate change is a thing, that it’s an issue. Where people disagree is what its root causes are.
We don’t necessarily have to agree on what the cause of it is, or on what’s causing it, but we can all agree that we are feeling the effects of climate change in a variety of ways.
One way that I have found we can really bring a lot of people into the discussion in New England is through talking about Lyme disease and tick-borne diseases.
Helen Osborne:You take the bigger issue and make it more real, more personal?
Aaron Frechette:Right, and we try to make it more real and digestible, and something that people are really concerned about.
Helen Osborne:I just want to ask another broader question about this. When you talk about issues of the environment and concern, do you ever get this ho-hum reaction, where people say, “I want to hear about that shark attack that was in the TV today”? Do you ever get that sense that it’s not an urgent issue?
Aaron Frechette:It really depends on a person’s perspective. What’s important, I think, in talking about any of these issues is you just find one or two key issues that people are really interested in, and that can come from a conversation.
Just really try to relate to people in a way that they can understand, and then you can maybe broaden the topic and broaden the discussion into issues of greater significance and more global significance.
Helen Osborne:I know I come from this personal response. I’ve been bitten and I have my nasty stories each time that happened to me. I’m all ears when I hear about that. Is that an in-road to talk about these greater issues, when it’s an issue of personal relevance?
Aaron Frechette:Absolutely, and that’s always a great way to talk to people and just find out what really interests them personally.
When it does interest them personally, they’re not going to tune out. They’re going to be much more engaged in the conversation. They may share an anecdote that you can then press them on more and talk to them about.
That’s really a great way to communicate any of these issues. Really, move away from the abstract to the more everyday concerns that they may have.
Helen Osborne:What lessons do you have for us? Our listeners, we’re communicating all sorts of topics, but it’s somehow associated with health, and we all want to do better and learn from it.
I know you’re doing a great job. I have some of your materials. You shared them. You have a coloring book and a workbook for little kids. You’ve got a device they can use. You’ve got a great handbook and video.
Tell us, what can we all be doing, whether our messages are about environment or vector-borne diseases or just generally about health concerns? How could we do it better?
Aaron Frechette:All these concerns are really rooted in science, but science can be a really tough thing for people to talk about sometimes because they may not have a scientific background. Science tends to come with really big words and big concepts.
The best thing that you can do is, again, just really try to hone in on these everyday household concerns that people have, and talk at a very simple level. Try to understand, “What would a child understand?”
That’s one thing that we’ve done with these Rhode Island Tick Detective Workbooks for Kids that we’re offering in a variety of schools, because we know that kids can actually also serve as teachers. They’re not only students, but they can be teachers.
They can bring home this message to their parents and nag their parents, “Hey, Mom and Dad, you have to be careful. You’re outside, and if we’re out at a soccer game or we’re going camping, we better use that bug spray so that we don’t get tick bites.”
Helen Osborne:I was looking again at that booklet, right before we were doing this podcast, and it’s really neat. You have pictures of three different-sized ticks and where they could be and all of that.
On your Health Literacy Out Loudweb page, we will have a link, so other people can be seeing that. But can you describe that booklet a little bit more, about how you’re helping kids be teachers on this topic?
Aaron Frechette:The workbook has a variety of activities. We’re piloting this program in Rhode Island with about a dozen schools in very high Lyme-endemic areas–areas of the state where we see a lot of incidence of Lyme disease.
We’re piloting the program, using our disease data, so using the data that we have about the number of people that come down with cases of Lyme disease that are reported to us. We really wanted to reach out to those school nurses to become partners in creating this program.
Helen Osborne:It’s all science-based, all evidence-based, everything you’re doing.
Aaron Frechette:Absolutely. We don’t have a lot of resources, and it’s expensive to print these and to distribute them. I looked around in neighboring states and tried to look for some things that they were doing that I thought were pretty innovative and had a lot of potential in Rhode Island.
In this case, I found this program that was actually launched in New Hampshire a couple of years ago. The great thing about it is that it is completely clinically vetted. It has a track record, so it’s been launched and it’s been used in schools in New Hampshire.
They did all the focus groups to see how well it would work and made the necessary adjustments. They’ve done surveys of families and of the teachers who have used it.
They’ve done all of that legwork, which is very expensive. To create something brand new would cost a fortune. It would be out of our budget.
Helen Osborne:Now you’re using it. How did that happen?
Aaron Frechette:I simply reached out to the organization that put this together. This is actually a public-private partnership that launched this in New Hampshire. It was a group of, I guess, Lyme disease supporters who funded it, with the support of the New Hampshire Department of Public Health. They worked together to create this and vet it, so it was mostly private funds that went to create it.
Helen Osborne:All of a sudden, Aaron just calls out of the blue. Were you expecting them to say, “No, it’s ours. Stay away,” or not?
Aaron Frechette:No. Typically, in public health, I find that most people are cooperative. Most organizations, whether they are state or private, use some sort of state or federal funding, some sort of governmental funding.
As a result of that, they’re a little more open to sharing it. A lot of people are just happy that all the time, effort and money they put into creating these could be used more broadly.
I don’t really see a lot of the competition among states and among various organizations that are doing this sort of work. They’re more interested in collaborating.
Helen Osborne:That’s a wonderful suggestion for all of us, no matter what our topic. We are all pressed for time and money, and we know that all these steps, the testing, validating and all that has to happen, but we can’t see our way to doing it.
I’m really impressed that you picked up the phone, typed out an email or met somebody and just said, “Let’s do this,” and you found a way to collaborate.
I noticed at the front of the book that it talks about your partners in this project, including New Hampshire. That’s really impressive. That’s a great tip for all of us.
What else? Tell us more. What else could we be doing to communicate about such issues?
Aaron Frechette:Social media today is a very effective and inexpensive way to communicate, whether you’re just using what’s called your organic reach on things like Facebook and Twitter.
With some campaigns that we’re working on, we’re actually creating a new Snapchat account, which is something new for me. I’m not familiar with Snapchat.
Helen Osborne:I have no clue what that is. I can barely do the Facebook and LinkedIn.
Aaron Frechette:Snapchat is basically very graphic-based, very photo-based, and it’s what all the kids are using these days, all the teenagers, especially.
The messages are temporary and the information that you send out is temporary. It only lasts for 24 hours, and then it vanishes, but this is a way that young people are communicating.
Although myself and a number of my colleagues aren’t that familiar with it, we said, “We have to be here because this is where a part of our key audience is.”
Helen Osborne:I’m really impressed at all these different ways you’re communicating, and I hope you add this podcast to your ways, too, these audio interviews. It reaches a certain audience, too.
Helen Osborne:We probably don’t all do all of these things, but we can read a book. I saw your conference. I watched your video. We’re talking now. It sounds like there are all kinds of ways to spread the word about important health messages.
Aaron Frechette:Right, and all kinds of ways to network as well today. You might not have the funding to be able to go to that conference that you like, but in a lot of cases, these conferences are available on YouTube, so you can see the proceedings and you can find some really good ways of getting new ideas.
Just don’t be afraid of trying new things and being innovative. That’s a huge part of it, and you can usually find people that, if you don’t know something, can help you figure it out.
With the Snapchat that we’re going into, we may not be all that familiar with this type of medium, but we have interns who work in our program who know Snapchat really well, so we’re tapping them.
These students who are working with us and are supposed to be learning from us, it’s a two-way street. We’re really learning from them, too.
I’m giving our intern the keys, and we call them public health scholars where we are, to teach us “What are the best practices? What is an effective way to communicate with your peers?” That’s who we’re trying to reach here.
Helen Osborne:Aaron, what a wealth of tips you have. I hope our listeners are going to jot all this down. It sounds pretty doable. It’s all good news. You go. Is there any hard stuff that we need to be aware of?
Aaron Frechette:With public health, sometimes things can be controversial. Sometimes you will get pushback.
Particularly in the land of social media, there are always going to be naysayers and people who will comment and have something nasty to say about what you think is a good thing you’re doing because they may not agree with the information that’s there. They may believe that there’s a conspiracy behind it, or whatever. You just have to tune out.
My philosophy on social media, and this may come from my years working in journalism and certainly with the opinion page and opinion content, is that you just let people have their say. You don’t have to respond to everything.
Unless it’s really egregious, I tend to just allow it to stay on. I don’t delete, because that’s part of the messaging.
Sometimes you’ll get a comment where you do have a good opportunity to educate that person and also educate others who may be seeing it, so it’s just using your judgment on that.
My key to public health communication is to never let ego get in the way. Don’t feel that you have to create it, it has to be your original idea or you’re the only person who has all the answer.
Sometimes people can have really good insights that come from all walks of life. Be open to those. Be open to as many partnerships and collaborations as possible, because that will allow you more resources to really get your message out there.
Also, by creating a lot of partnerships, you can test your materials, too, and run ideas by people who may come from different walks of life or have different perspectives.
Helen Osborne:I was curious about that. How well is this working?
Aaron Frechette:We just launched the program. We recruited the school nurse teachers that we wanted to work with in the areas that we thought could benefit the most from the program.
They were all so enthusiastic that we had these great educational materials and really very grateful that the Department of Health was willing to put up the money for these nice materials that they can use as teaching tools. There was a lot of enthusiasm from them.
We only have a limited number of books that we were able to print, but we wanted to make these materials available to as many people as possible, so certainly anyone who wants to print off the PDFs at home or for their schools, they’re welcome to do that.
Our policy is always to make anything that we create available to as many people as possible, knowing that we don’t have the resources to print them all the time, but we at least want to make the materials available.
Helen Osborne:It sounds like you have many ways of seeing that this is moving forward in the direction it should. For our listeners of Health Literacy Out Loud,can they look at, share and access your materials somehow?
Helen Osborne:The link will be on yourHealth Literacy Out Loudweb page, for sure. Is there a short URL you could tell us on this podcast?
Aaron Frechette: Yes. Most of our tick-related materials can be found at www.Health.ri.gov/ticks. If people go on that page and look under “publications,” they can find most of our materials there.
Helen Osborne:You are great. I’m as impressed with you now as when I saw you at a small meeting. I am so glad that you are doing what you do and sharing with us on Health Literacy Out Loud.It’s kind of like the good part of a bug. You got the bug and you’re infecting us all, but in a good way, toward better health communication.
Aaron Frechette:Thanks, Helen.
Helen Osborne:Thank you, Aaron, for being a guest on Health Literacy Out Loud.
Aaron Frechette:Thank you for the opportunity.
Helen Osborne:As we just heard from Aaron Frechette, it’s important to communicate about public health and environmental issues, not just those that happen in a clinic. But doing so is not always easy.
For help clearly communicating your health message, please visit my Heath Literacy Consulting website at www.HealthLiteracy.com. While you’re there, feel free to sign up for the free monthly e-newsletter, What’s New in Health Literacy Consulting.
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Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.