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Hoekelman Center Newsletter – January 2023

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A Note From The Director January 2023

Town Crier

Nationaal Archief, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Town-crier announcing the latest news on the island of Terschelling, the Netherlands, 1938.

Translating good news from Nerd to English

“Again and again, there comes a time in history when the person who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher understands this. And the question is not what reward or punishment will be the consequence of that reasoning. The question is to know whether two and two—yes or no—make four.”

--Albert Camus, The Plague


Living through a pandemic brought Camus’s novel The Plague to mind, and in particular the quote above. Because as we’ve seen, one of the major barriers to effective public health action has been a parallel epidemic of dangerous misinformation. It’s good to be skeptical and to listen to different opinions, but there are not always two sides to every story. 2 + 2 = 4. Reality exists. It’s possible to know stuff, even if it’s not always easy.

The research literature is not user-friendly. Trying to figure out what the science says requires some effort. In a previous newsletter, I wrote about evaluation and how confusing it’s been for people to try to understand important questions like whether DARE!—Yes or No—was an effective program for drug abuse prevention. There was never a clear Yes. Eventually, there was a clear No. Nevertheless, DARE! kept going for years across the nation. Why didn’t the people who knew the evidence say something? My guess is they thought they did because they published articles in academic journals.

That’s a standard story. In fact, many scientists think it’s inappropriate—perhaps even unethical—for scientists to engage in advocacy regarding public policy. I can understand this position: science should be objective and non-political. However, we know that we have an abysmal Know-Do Gap problem. In other words, a lot of science that could help people is just sitting on the shelf. There’s a branch of research called Translational Science that tries to figure out how to close the Know-Do Gap. I like the word Translation in this context, because I think a big part of the issue is translating from Nerd to English what we already know about what works to help people. The Hoekelman Center is here to assist with going from research to reality on a case-by-case basis.

Promoting facts to improve community health is a form of advocacy. In the last few newsletters, I’ve been including our SCALE mnemonic for how to scale up effective programs.  The A is for Advocate. When people hear “advocacy” they often think of legislative advocacy, like talking to your elected representatives. Advocating, or speaking up, can happen in lots of different ways. Nowadays, we clearly need more practical and effective ways of speaking up for evidence-based practice. Research from around the world suggests that one of the biggest predictors of vaccine uptake is trust in government and institutions. Trust is earned by following through on promises to make things better for people. I think we can do a better job explaining the promises by translating Nerd into English. And then we could do more to share real success stories, because otherwise the news media have a definite negative bias. If we look at the health and wellbeing statistics for Rochester, are there areas where we’re moving the needle in the right direction? How did that happen? Can we build on that? What about all the wonderful people in non-profits and other organizations helping individuals locally? What inspiring stories do they have?

Along these lines, the Hoekelman Center sponsors the Thriving Forward podcast, whose hosts Dr. Megan Lasaponara and Dr. Sarah Collins-McGowan interview Rochester folks doing good work in the community. And coming up soon will be Dyson Day, where we’ll have a poster session for our CARE Track community projects. The grand rounds lecturer that day will be Dr. Sarah Ventre, talking about the community outreach work she’s been doing in Buffalo. We’ll also have opportunities for people to network and share what they are doing with each other. Amplifying the stories of people, projects and programs that are having positive impact is a type of everyday advocacy that encourages a virtuous spiral of progress for our children.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this page do not reflect those of the University of Rochester Medical Center.