Michigan State University’s annual Bettinghaus Endowed Lecture welcomed Dr. K “Vish” Viswanath for his talk, “Centering Equity in Health and Communication: A Plea for Engaged, Participatory and Inclusive Communication Science and Practice” Feb. 24, 2023, at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.
Equity + Community Engagement
Kasisomayajula Viswanath — also known as Dr. K “Vish” Viswanath — is Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) and in the McGraw-Patterson Center for Population Sciences at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI).
As a translational communication scientist, Viswanath is interested in understanding how scientific evidence is translated through communications to influence practice and policy. He visited the East Lansing campus in February for the second time to give a lecture, this time to underscore the importance of equity in health communication.
One of Viswanath’s goals is to sensitize people to the idea of inequalities in communication.
“It’s not as widely thought of, as an idea, as it should be,” explained Viswanath, who is one of the few people in the field seeking to bring this link to unequal health outcomes to the mainstream.
Viswanath notes that there are profound inequalities in every facet of our lives, between those that benefit from communication and policy interventions, and those that do not.
“These inequalities are actually widening rather than narrowing with the introduction and evolution of technologies,” he said. “My plea is that we need to address them. These inequalities are not natural; they are very much a part of the way we design systems. We have to do everything we can to bridge those inequalities.”
Dr. Viswanth works at multiple levels in a variety of areas, from public health emergencies to cancer, to maternal and child health, to psychological and social well-being. He spoke about the need for a participatory and inclusive approach to health communication — that listening to and learning from diverse communities is key to success.
Challenges to accessing and processing information
Viswanath stressed that understanding, and addressing, the unique needs and perspectives of different populations is crucial to improving health outcomes and reducing health disparities.
He notes that one of the challenges in health communication is that not everyone has access to experts or credible information. Even if they do, engaging with the information can be a challenge, due to various barriers in their own lives. Processing information can be difficult, too, especially when individuals are under stress. The fourth challenge is whether people actually have the capability to act on the information, especially if they don’t have access to those resources — like fresh and affordable food, or a mobile phone.
Viswanath emphasizes that effective health communication strategies require collaboration and partnership between researchers, practitioners and community members — and provided examples of how this can be addressed in practice. Involving the beneficiaries and users, particularly those who are socially vulnerable or underserved, in defining the problem and co-developing the solution ensures that whatever is being proposed is in line with the needs of the communities themselves.
He argues that top-down solutions often do not work because they are not optimally designed for the context and community.
“As we design these systems and policies and practices and interventions … we want to make sure that we engage critical stakeholders and community groups as a part of the solution,” said Viswanath. “There are assets in the community who are very rich in their creativity, compassion, passion, commitment, skills … and we want to tap into those assets in designing [systems]. We are not the only experts. They, too, have expertise.”
The Bettinghaus Endowed Lecture is an annual event co-sponsored by the Health and Risk Communication Center and the Department of Communication that brings together leading scholars and practitioners in the field of health communication. Established in honor of the late Professor Erwin Bettinghaus, who was Dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences for 20 years, the lecture series aims to promote the advancement of health communication research and practice.