When Ebola reared its head in West Africa in 2014, the world’s public health authorities rushed to control its spread. My CDC colleagues and others from around the globe scrambled to build field laboratories and treatment facilities as well as implement tracking and surveillance protocols — all necessary but insufficient responses to the emerging threat. Equally important were skills in communicating with affected communities about cultural norms like caregiving and burial practices. The lesson was clear: public health officials needed to speak in the right languages through credible leaders in the community, as well as with a keen understanding of the history and culture that drove behaviors.

Back in the U.S., public health officials struggle with some of the same challenges in achieving broad health gains. Our understanding of the role that fundamental social and economic factors play in determining our opportunities for good health is deepening, and the need to reach outside traditional public health circles is more apparent. Yet we often lack the languages and connections needed to help set a health agenda in our communities. In many cases, public health science and data alone fail to spur action by elected officials, business leaders, school superintendents, and housing authorities.

Language and connection are central to the Public Health Reaching Across Sectors (PHRASES) Initiative. The de Beaumont Foundation and the Aspen Institute’s Health, Medicine and Society Program are launching PHRASES to help public health leaders effectively collaborate and communicate with other sectors. PHRASES is a multiyear project designed to provide public health practitioners with the tools and training they need to effectively engage, communicate, and work with key local partners, like mayors and city council members, housing commissioners, hospital CEOs, and school superintendents.

PHRASES’ goal is to ensure that the value of public health — the expertise of professionals, and the approaches and solutions they offer — is better understood and can play a greater role in the decision-making of other sectors. We want to connect with previously untapped, but much-needed, allies to address not only control of infectious illnesses but also the chronic disease challenges facing public health officials across the country. We plan to support public health professionals in their efforts to learn how to speak the “language” and understand the needs and priorities of the other sectors so vital to the ultimate health and well-being of the public.

Over the course of the initiative, PHRASES will:

  • Create a “go-to” and easily accessible web resource that compiles and synthesizes high-quality published research that documents the ways in which public health provides value to other sectors;
  • Identify core elements of a communications strategy that describes public health in ways that resonate within and across sectors;
  • Develop a toolkit that ties the evidence for public health’s contributions across sectors to what is learned from the project’s message research and testing; and
  • Conduct outreach and training for the public health community to ensure effective use of the project’s web resource and toolkit.

The public health community must work with other sectors to meet their needs. Take the education sector for example. A local public school knows that its performance is measured by its test scores. Absentee rates can affect these scores. Public health professionals know that asthma causes many of these absences. Therefore, if we find ways to address the underlying asthma problem, we can address the absentee problem and then hopefully raise test scores.

Similarly, it does not make sense to treat acute episodes of childhood asthma repeatedly in the emergency room when we can address the source of the asthma triggers in these children’s homes. This requires working closely with public and private housing officials — speaking their language and understanding their programs, and financing structures and priorities.

PHRASES will equip public health professionals with strategies for framing these conversations with our colleagues in the education and housing sectors as well as others, so that together, we can serve all our goals and objectives.

Join us as we connect leaders across sectors and drive towards a healthier, more robust America. For more information on PHRASES, visit phrases.org.

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