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Health Sciences lecturer teaches graduate students to own their expertise, public voice
By: Sharon Mah
People often look to public health professionals to bring scientific or statistical evidence to a discussion about diseases, or social determinants of health. However, Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) senior lecturer and director of Undergraduate Programs Kate Tairyan, notes that having public health providers weigh in on conversations happening in public spaces – such as professional journals, newspapers, or meetings at City Hall – can be valuable for other healthcare providers and citizens alike.
In her Introduction to Global Health class – taught as part of the two-year Master of Public Health (MPH) program – Tairyan encourages students to respond to real-world issues that they are passionate about by writing a ‘letter to the editor’ or similar short-form communiqué. Beyond encouraging MPH candidates to share their thoughts, concerns, and passions with the public, the assignment is an opportunity to “bring [a] professional expert perspective and suggest some solutions or raise difficult issues for discussion,” and to provide skills learning and practice in a real-world setting.
Communication is a key core competency in the MPH program, one that is taught across a variety of courses over two years of learning. While the focus is primarily on scientific communication, there is also an emphasis on knowledge translation (KT), a framework that focuses on dissemination and ethical application of health information. “In this course, students have an opportunity to touch many important topics from public health and global health perspectives and reach very large audiences,” says Tairyan. “People turn to us [for] many different opinions as leaders, as public health professionals. This [assignment] is more about how we embed ourselves in public discussion and bring our perspective to the public domain.”
Three MPH students in Tairyan’s Spring 2022 class recently had their letters published by major publications. Christine Yanagawa’s response letter to an article in The New York Times discussing the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus urged readers and officials to take a planetary health approach to the global COVID-19 pandemic and explore how human - animal interactions and habitat encroachment are impacting global health, rather than engaging in finger pointing.
“Having the letter published not only gave me the confidence to use my voice in advocacy, but it also reminded me that shifting social perceptions by raising awareness can be achieved through a variety of platforms, within and outside of the public health sphere,” says Yanagawa, whose letter was also amplified in a special edition of The New York Times. “I am keen to continue exploring the complementary avenues that public health voices can take to mobilize knowledge, like public health and digital storytelling, mapping, data journalism, etc. These are all powerful ways to raise awareness and engage the public at the individual level and the community level.”
MPH candidate Carolina Guerra Alejos said she wanted to challenge herself by writing an opinion about how Canada can improve primary care access for immigrants and refugees by utilizing foreign-trained physicians, nurses, and allied health workers who have first-hand experience and cultural knowledge of these patients’ home countries but are prevented from practicing due to credentialing and licensing issues. “I couldn't believe my opinion was published in [the Canadian Medical Association Journal]. This gave me the self-confidence I needed to publish to an audience bigger than my classmates. It helped me realize that there's a space for my opinion as an International Medical Graduate learning about foreign healthcare systems.”
After experiencing a personal loss during the pandemic, MPH candidate Tania Sze Kit-ling wrote a letter to the South China Morning Post, proposing three actions that Hong Kong health officials and funeral homes could take to reduce the suffering of families who lost loved ones during the March-April COVID-19 outbreak. Sze transformed her experience into a call for a public health approach to the pandemic that is compassionate and comprehensive as well as protective.
Tairyan observes that this assignment is a great learning experience for MPH students, ultimately empowering them to both advocate and engage with the public in the future. “I’m learning a lot from them, too” she points out, “and I’m having a lot of fun [doing so].”