During Spring 2009, preparedness staff at the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) received many questions about H1N1 from the public and media. Advances in knowledge about H1N1 and a deeper understanding of what people wanted to know about the virus contributed to NYSDOH's communication strategies for Fall 2009.
NYSDOH created a template for communicating about H1N1 in a colorful and interesting way. Creating the template involved a collaborative process built on lessons learned from spring events and a better understanding of the myriad questions NYSDOH was receiving from the media and the general public. Staff working in epidemiology/surveillance and public affairs came together to ask "What can we share with people that's important for them to know and will answer their questions?" said Rebecca Hathaway, Deputy Director of the Office of Health Emergency Preparedness. Preparedness staff wanted their outgoing communications to provide complex information in a way that was easy to understand, accessible, and non-frightening.
By Fall 2009, preparedness staff knew what questions were likely to come from the public, members of the media, and clinical providers. They knew that people were interested in hearing about recent deaths and hospitalizations, along with learning about how widespread the virus was in their communities. People also wanted to know about lab testing results for H1N1. Although NYSDOH was not testing the majority of flu samples, the agency included results for the samples they tested on the template, because people were asking for this information. Surveillance data managers met regularly with public affairs staff to determine how best to answer questions. "How do people process information that they see? How do people learn?" were two of the questions asked during development of the template, Hathaway said. Ultimately, NYSDOH wanted to present information in a way that would appeal to many different styles and learning preferences, and the template's strong visual components reflect this consideration.
The first report came out on September 12, 2009. The reports were placed on NYSDOH's public H1N1 Web site each week. The template carries topics of interest to the public that are easy to update, including: 1) Current key findings from flu monitoring systems; 2) results of statewide testing for flu; 3) results of public health testing for flu; 4) reports of doctors' office visits for flu from sentinel providers; 5) reports of emergency department visits for flu from syndromic surveillance; 6) tallies of hospitalizations for flu statewide and at sentinel hospitals; and 7) lab-confirmed pediatric and adult deaths associated with H1N1 flu. The report includes colorful graphs and tables that visually depict key information.
Through the use of a collaborative effort between epidemiology and public affairs, NYSDOH created a user-friendly approach to conveying influenza data. More importantly, the department also found a way to communicate complex information about an evolving situation in a way that respected how people prefer to receive information.