Accessible, Equitable, and Understandable Public Health

Meet Iris Olson, MPH, (they/them/theirs) a member of the APHVC infographics team. You might have seen their infographics and videos on mask-wearing and how to stay safe as Massachusetts gradually reopens. For Iris, communicating health information in an easy to understand way is paramount. “[Y]ou just can’t shove a peer-reviewed journal at somebody and be like, “Hey! This is the science, you should do this.” It’s a lot of words, it’s a peer-reviewed journal, and most people just don’t have the training to be able to read that…” Utilizing their background as an artist and a public health professional, Iris strives to make health information as accessible as possible. “We do need to make it accessible, but the really big thing with all the issues that I’ve listed is where is the accessibility component?”

Iris speaks here about literacy, and also knows that literacy is only one component of health literacy, or someone’s ability to understand health information. Since communications can contain complicated statistics, behavioral recommendations, and timely updates, it’s important to break each one down. When designing their communications, Iris makes sure to take into account what people are already familiar with, “It’s just the same as newspapers and magazines, where there’s a certain reading level, why can’t we do that in public health?”

In order to make sure information is understandable, one must tailor the information to its respective audience. Consequently, Iris believes in making sure accessible information is readily available in every community. Accessibility, not unlike literacy, is just one part of effective communication. Iris works diligently to produce material that is equitable as well. Oftentimes, the LGBTQ or homeless populations are forgotten and are left out in times of crisis. “[W]e need to pay attention to these communities and we need to have accessible information about what’s going on.” 

Iris leverages a strong belief in supporting communities which are especially vulnerable: 

I want to support people. Specifically, I want to support those that… I tend to think towards the LGBTQ community because that’s the community I am a part of and I am very privileged within that community. I want to support the individuals that are hurting, who don’t have the resources, who did not have the opportunities I had. I want to build up individuals in the community.

Health communications are a nexus for Iris to merge their passion for equity and accessible communications. Their visual communications illustrate this unity perfectly. Iris says, “people, humans, are visual. They’re so visual in being able to consume information. If you can put it in a graphic or in a video… Like this is why I really loved animation in undergrad. If you can animate it, it gets people’s attention.” Their visually-driven approach has produced some of the APHVC’s most successful and engaging pieces of socially conscious health communications. These include the mask video mentioned before, an infographic of how to protest safely, and mask-wearing graphics for businesses, among others. These can all be viewed on Facebook. Iris concludes that “we need to pay attention to these communities, and we need to have accessible information about what’s going on.” 

Getting Involved in the APHVC

Iris was a TA when one of their students approached them about volunteering at the APHVC. Iris recognized this as a great opportunity to leverage their skills and actively help with COVID-19 efforts while supporting multiple communities. When asked about how they felt working with the APHVC, Iris said, “it’s been actually really great. I’ve been reflecting on it quite a bit and I really love it. It’s kind of like a community, even if it’s all virtual. It feels like a community to me.” For Iris, the APHVC has been both a learning and teaching experience. They have been able to bring their experience as a health communication specialist to light while learning from others in different fields of public health. 

For individuals interested in getting into public health, Iris recommends talking to as many people as possible. Public health is a very broad field and includes specialties such as epidemiology, health communications, and health policy & law, just to name a few. Finding the right program can be challenging, but having conversations with others can help one identify the right fit for them. Iris is happy to have this conversation with people interested in pursuing public health and can be contacted through their LinkedIn

By: Thaddeus Chua (BU), Meghna Iyer (Northeastern), Parker Sweet (Umass Amherst)

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