GHIC 2020: Global Health & Innovation Conference
April 4-5, 2020 at Yale University and the Historic Shubert Theater
New Haven, Connecticut

Unite For Sight's 2011 Global Health & Innovation Conference

Blog Report by Daniel Ting, Unite For Sight Global Health Leadership Intern Alumnus

"Workshop: New Media For Global Health," Neal Baer, MD, Institute for Photographic Empowerment at USC's Annenberg School of Communications; Executive Producer, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

Neal Baer has had a uniquely distinguished career in both hospital and Hollywood. A pediatrician, Baer graduated from Harvard Medical School and is currently clinical professor at the University of Southern California. Baer has also been the executive producer of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and ER. The positions are seemingly incongruent, yet Baer combines the two by using storytelling in media to promote public health messages.   

Using the media for public health messages is surprisingly effective. In an episode of ER, Baer wrote in a plot that involved a girl contracting cervical cancer after being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection that is associated with the development of cervical cancer. Inherent in the theme was the promotion of safe-sex practices, as well as the link between HPV and cervical cancer. Baer decided to test how much of these messages were getting through to regular viewers of ER, a population that peaked at 40 million American viewers weekly. Baer asked viewers whether they knew HPV was associated with cervical cancer at three different timepoints: before the episode, one week after the episode, and six weeks after the episode. Before the episode, only 19% of respondents could associate HPV with cervical cancer, after a week, the number jumped to 60%, and after 6 weeks, the number settled to 38%, twice the initial level. In other words, 7.6 million Americans retained the association after 6 weeks after watching the episode once. The result demonstrated that though viewers know that TV shows are fictional, they are willing to suspend their disbelief and learn facts from the show. While periodic “boosters” of information may be required for long-term public education, similar surveys have confirmed the efficacy of media as an educational tool.

Baer then switched to talking about how public health officials can use social media to their advantage to disseminate information among an emerging population of TV viewers. Once upon a time, regular viewers of a show would all tune in on a specific time on a specific day of the week. ER, for example, would attract 40 million primetime American viewers at its peak. Over the past decade, however, more and more individuals are using DVRs and on-demand streaming to watch shows whenever and wherever they want, and they are using social media devices such as Facebook and YouTube to share the best parts. The new TV viewer is streaming an episode of a favorite show on a tablet, while splitting the screen with Twitter to share reactions with floormates down the hall.

The new paradigm of TV viewing means, first, that many viewers skip commercials altogether. While public health officials have tried to use public service announcements to share information, the viewership for these messages is shrinking. The new paradigm also means that public health officials have novel social media mechanisms to reach out to the general public. This development could very well extend audiences far beyond that which was previously possible.

One example of these new mechanisms that Baer shared was the use of a bubble tweet, which is a short 30-second video story posted on Twitter. One recent episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit dealt with the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically with the use of rape as a tool of war. This bubble tweet, titled “Witness” was shared to over 1,000,000 Twitter accounts. The bubble tweet was released alongside a number of articles in social media friendly websites, such as one in the Huffington Post that has been shared by over 150 accounts on Facebook (a typical article can expect 4-10 shares). Finally, resources to connect viewers from awareness to action were shared on Take Part.

Storytelling is paramount, claimed Baer, because “stories are the currency of our lives.” Healthcare and global health workers all have stories that motivated and inspired them along the way. With the cost of videocameras declining and social media acting as a free way to access a broad audience, one does not have to be the executive director of Law and Order to take private stories into the public forum, using them as motivational and instructional anecdotes.

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