In the summer of 2019, the University of Michigan School of Public Health launched its first podcast, Population Healthy. The opening episode focused on vaccines, explaining how they work, why they work, and their role in preventing disease.
The team had no idea America was months away from its deadliest pandemic.
“In preventive medicine, we teach our physicians how to take care of not only the individual person but a whole population,” explained one of the episode’s guests, Laura Power, an epidemiology and internal medicine professor who also directs the school’s preventive medicine residency program.
But populations aren’t treated equally in a number of ways, especially when it comes to public health.
“Racism—both interpersonal and structural—negatively affects the mental and physical health of millions of people, preventing them from attaining their highest level of health, and consequently, affecting the health of our nation,” writes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Public health experts have long understood that health disparities can be a reflection of structural inequities that harm not only those impacted, but society as a whole. There are many issues people of color deal with that lead to these health disparities.
Redlining, or the history of exclusionary practices in real estate, has led to reduced access to housing and necessary resources for people of color in the United States. Cultural racism in forms such as microaggressions can lead to negative mental health outcomes such as trauma and depression. Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women, leading to distrust of the medical system.
By producing a podcast that delves deep into the important public health topics that impact everyday lives (such as aging in America, the opioid epidemic, maternal health, pollution, and more), the U-M School of Public Health was prepared to take on the topic of how race intersects with public health.
According to CDC data tracked through Sept. 9, 2021, Black and Hispanic U.S. residents were 2.8 times as likely as their white, non-Hispanic counterparts to be hospitalized due to a COVID-19 case. Black residents were twice as likely to die, and Hispanic residents were 2.3 times as likely to die.
Those numbers are striking, but without further investigation, they aren’t complete.
“It’s not so easy to be grouping people into specific groups and say ‘OK, all of this group is going to experience COVID-19 in this particular way, or this is always the most important factor.’ Because even if we think about racialized groups and how disproportionately affected they have been by COVID-19, they’re not a homogenous group; all racialized groups are not the same,” says Olena Hankivsky, a professor at Simon Fraser University School of Public Policy, British Columbia, Canada, who specializes in applications of intersectionality in research and policy.
“There’s complicating factors which include things like age, geographic location, disability, and sexual orientation, etc., so it’s not a straightforward story.”
But the story does need to be told.
Population Healthy is one of the myriad ways the U-M School of Public Health elevates its experts' voices on the subject of racism and public health. The marketing and communication team created an anti-racism webpage featuring not only the podcast, but calls to action, news and research, blog posts, and anti-racism resources.
Advancing the Conversation
With racial inequity at the forefront of the national conversation in 2020 due to the murder of George Floyd, the U-M School of Public Health saw an opportunity to contextualize the issues and place their expertise at the forefront.
“Even before season three, race and health equity were themes that ran through many of our podcast episodes, whether they were about nutrition or mental health or aging,” says Andrea LaFerle, U-M School of Public Health’s director of marketing and publications.
The third season addressed “Race, Inequity, and Closing the Health Gap” and featured topics such as food insecurity, diversifying the public health field, Black families and mental health, health care delivery, race and data, and more.
“We have many faculty who study race and its impact on health as well as alumni and students engaged in this work,” LaFerle says. “Producing a full podcast season on this topic allowed us to dig much deeper than we could have in a single episode.”
LaFerle, who oversees the podcast, says she gathered input from individuals outside of her department, including her colleagues on the U-M diversity, equity, and inclusion team, on everything from the season title to the visual representation of the episodes. She also put extra measures in place to make sure the podcast considered a variety of voices in every step of the process, such as having team members pair up to co-produce episodes, ensuring there were different perspectives for each interview conducted.
The Work Continues
The conversation didn’t stop there. Questions raised in the podcast have been addressed by the U-M School of Public Health in other channels.
In an effort to explore the history of vaccine hesitancy, the relationship between vaccine hesitancy and race, and how those factors relate to the pandemic, with an aim of rebuilding trust in medical systems, the School of Public Health published a Q&A with Abram Wagner, research assistant professor of epidemiology, and Trina R. Shanks, director of community engagement in the School of Social Work.
U-M also has a vibrant vaccine hub webpage that includes frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, resources to help find a local vaccine clinic, and a video specifically addressing Black communities and the COVID-19 vaccine.
LaFerle says the podcast has been well received by the U-M public health community and beyond. They were able to deliver content when podcast listening grew 17% according to Eddison Research.
“We received positive feedback on the season, including from people in our community who said they appreciated the focus on race and health equity and that we were able to highlight not only the expertise of our faculty but also voices from some of the communities we work in,” LaFerle says.
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DIGITAL ISSUE ONLY - Spotlight on Intersectionality: Recognizing the interplay between the individual and the system—be it the labor market, health care, or education—intersectionality acknowledges that individuals are complex beings with multiple identities and backgrounds that create unique experiences and challenges when overlapping with these systems.