Closing the Communication Loop: A Fireside Chat with Your Local Epidemiologist

Editor’s Note: In the fall of 2023, GreenBook’s IIEX Health event took place in Philadelphia, bringing both useful and inspiration content to insights and analytics professionals spanning the healthcare, pharmaceutical, medical, and wellness industries. Attendees found the content so valuable that we wanted to make much of it available to all who could not attend this in-person event. Before even reading this post, know this: You can view all the sessions on-demand now!

If you aren’t in those industries … how might you apply the learning within your own? At GreenBook, we believe that IIEX is more than a conference series. It’s a mindset. These are the forums in which the most important insights innovations are revealed, demonstrated, debated, and championed. What starts at the events drive change in our world. It is in that spirit that we bring you, directly, some of the poignant content we heard at IIEX Health. We continue this series with a session from the CEO of EpiMonitor and creator of the Your Local Epidemiologist newsletter, Dr. Katelyn Jetelina.

Enjoy our On-Demand Video

Dive into the world of epidemiology and translating epidemiology for epidemiologists with Dr. Katelyn Jetelina. Having worked through the pandemic, Dr. Jetelina has become a consultant for the White House, CDC and the health policy when it comes to epidemiology. Join this conversation on how to close the communication loop and how to communicate complex information. Click to view the video (courtesy of Civicom).


View more 2023 IIEX Health content on-demand!

Whether you were able to attend, or you were not, join us online to see what was shared by some of the biggest brands, the newest startups, and expert-level researchers across healthcare, pharma, and consumer experience. Here’s just two of the amazing sessions you’ll find on-demand:


Real World Evidence: Using In-Office Dialogues to Understand Shared Decision-Making

  • Greg Hewitt and James Bauler speak to the innovation process behind Fuse Oncology, a spin-out of Cone Health, after a critical examination of the lag between a patient’s diagnosis and start of treatment.
  • Zach Hebert speaks to how the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more important than ever to deliver the right message and how the right message can help ease the mind of vaccine hesitant parents.

Online you’ll find other fantastic sessions by speakers from Pierre Fabre GroupNovartisHinge Health, and more! If you want to stay on top of the trends in the healthcare industry — one of the largest spends in market research — you won’t want to miss IIEX Health On-Demand!

Not familiar with the Insight Innovation Exchange (IIEX)?

Ten years ago, GreenBook embarked on a simple idea: Could we create opportunities for market research leaders to share ideas and collaborate to define the future of insights?

If there was something new to our industry — a company, methodology, or platform — that didn’t exist 10 years ago and is now considered a “best practice” … well, you probably saw it first at an IIEX event.

What starts here will change our world!


(Transcript courtesy of TranscriptWing)

Karen Lynch: I’m so excited for this talk. Let me tell you a little bit about the woman that I’m bringing up onto the stage right now. I just have to make sure I don’t make a mistake with her incredible, incredible background. This is Dr. Katelyn Jetelina. For those of you who don’t know her, you will soon find out why I am so excited to welcome her to the stage today. She has her master’s in public health and a PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics. So, if anybody’s wondering who might be the smartest person in the room, I think it might be her. She collaborates in a nonpartisan health policy think tank and engages as a scientific communication consultant for the CDC. She serves as the director of population health analytics at The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. That’s in California?

Katelyn Jetelina: Yes, in California.

Karen Lynch: Yes. She works as a CEO of what’s called the EpiMonitor, which is a media hub very much like GreenBook but focused on epidemiology and translating epidemiology for epidemiologists. Okay, just let that all kind of stay in your head about what that means, right? People who are looking at data all the time, she works with them on how to look at their data all the time. So, the reason why she’s on my radar is, and I’m grateful for this, is in March 2020, everybody remembers what happened in March 2020, right? We don’t even need to say it at this point. We’re all very aware. She launched a newsletter to update students at the university where she was teaching in Texas, University of Texas. Texas, yes. To update students and faculty and other staff members on the developments of the pandemic. That newsletter, it’s called Your Local Epidemiologist. I became aware of it as it started to circulate and grow pretty much viral in my network, for sure, but it has grown in these very short years to an international audience. It’s read by 160 million people in 132 countries. It didn’t exist before March 2020, and because of Katelyn, that number of people had epidemiology translated in a very, very unique way, in a way that was understandable for a layman like myself. She has been invited to the White House, she’s been quoted in the New York Times, and she is here with us today. So, please help me welcome Katelyn. We’re about to have a fireside chat that I hope informs you. Thank you for being here.

Katelyn Jetelina: Thank you. [Applause]

Karen Lynch: It’s funny I had this, when we talked on the phone, I had this, I think I might have to call her Dr. Jetelina all the time, and then she said, “Please, you can call me Katelyn.”

Katelyn Jetelina: Yes, please.

Karen Lynch: So, it’s a pleasure to meet you. So, if you could start off, I shared a little bit about your bio with the group because I find it so fascinating, what you’ve been able to do, but tell them a little bit more that I didn’t tell them about yourself and kind of what you were doing before the pandemic.

Katelyn Jetelina: Yes. So, I used to work at the WHO as an analyst in Geneva, a great place to live, and after, I built a research lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center, and I did that for about five years until the pandemic hit. As epidemiologists, we’re really called for all-hands-on-deck response, and so even if you were not focused on coronaviruses, we all became experts in coronaviruses very quickly, and so that’s really where I’m at now. So, I continued to work as faculty throughout the pandemic. I wrote this newsletter after I put my girls to sleep at night. Now, yes, I’m a consultant for the White House, CDC and the health policy.

Karen Lynch: Yes. Well, and one of the things I love about your backstory is that you had this lab. So, tell us a little bit about what was happening at the lab in general because we like the word lab in this space.

Katelyn Jetelina: So, I was formerly trained in infectious diseases, worked at WHO, but after, I noticed that infectious disease models could predict violence, actually. Child abuse, mass shootings, intimate partner violence, et cetera. So, my research lab really focused on applying those infectious disease models to violence epidemiology. I still dabble in that a little. It is where my heart is and my passion is, but I’m starting to kind of shying away from that, too.

Karen Lynch: Yes. So, incredibly cool, this journey. What prompted you, right? So, again, going back to March 2020 to even start this newsletter, what was it? What was the need or the pain point that you identified?

Katelyn Jetelina: So, it was very organic. It was not planned. I will say I didn’t really identify a need per se. People came to me asking a ton of questions. Pandemic is an infodemic, right? People are just overwhelmed with information. Some of it is true; some of it is not true, and a lot of my students and faculty and staff were just having great questions. So, I just started an email to them. It was about 30 people. Every day, I called it Your Data-driven Update. It was me looking at Excel, working with my WHO colleagues about what was going on, and really walking them through that process. I signed them, all those emails, Your Local Epidemiologist. Then a few days later, one of my students came to me, and he was like, “Hey, can you please put this on Facebook? So, I can stop forwarding my email to everyone and just share it.” So, I started a page and that’s kind of how it began.

Karen Lynch: It took off. So, who all is in your audience now?

Katelyn Jetelina: So, this is a great question. I didn’t know. At first, I thought I was talking to Joe on the corner, right? Just a random person but then I did a survey last year, October 2021, to know who my audience was. I didn’t know who I was talking to, and that’s super important in scientific communication, right? So, 77,000 people answered my survey, and I found out a lot of things. One, super international, 132 countries. Second, the readership, I’m very proud of this, was across the political spectrum. So, all the way liberal to all the way conservative. I was in Texas. So, I think that’s also what helped build that audience in the South. Then three, what I found out was that 60% of my followers have PhDs and MDs, so highly educated. I am not talking to Joe on the corner, I am talking to trusted messengers. So, they’re pastors, they’re superintendents at schools, they’re doctors, they’re other epidemiologists, they’re people at NASA, they’re people at White House that then further distill that information. So, really, I’m this node in this massive grassroots movement, and that was a big game changer to me on how I talked, how I wrote, and how my posts became actionable.

Karen Lynch: So, I just want to stay with that a minute. So, the information that you gleaned from survey research, obviously, like you look around, yes, we all do that. We get that so pointedly. You changed your communication based on what you’ve learned. So, talk to me about that process of, “Oh, I have to think differently now that I know my audience differently.”

Katelyn Jetelina: Yes, they’re highly educated people. The whole point of this newsletter is to translate science so it’s understandable and quickly in a reactive way, so fighting misinformation and disinformation, but also in a proactive way where you’re bringing people along for the ride and you’re explaining how the science is changing. So, when we have to pivot, we can pivot very easily. When I figured out my audience was high education, I didn’t have to translate what mRNA was. I didn’t have to explain that that was different than DNA like I was doing before. I could kind of skip a few steps in between. I think that it also really impacted the action I was calling. So, after every post, I tell people like, “This is why it matters, this is what you should do, it has to be actionable,” and that actionable changed. For example, I knew a ton of physicians were there. So, I created a one pager about why vaccines are useful for kids under five and what questions that they may
interact with and how to combat those questions or how to answer those questions with empathy. So, it did really change my perspective on what information was needed and how to talk about it.

Karen Lynch: So, obviously, this talk is all about kind of closing the communication loop, right, and communicating this complex information. When you take a look at some predictive models, or some data tables in Excel, how are you doing this? What is the thought process, as best as you can walk us through it, that enables you to take a look at all of that data, and then translate it in a way that is understandable across the globe? That is a skill set that many of us can learn from.

Katelyn Jetelina: Yes. Well, I was never trained in it. So, it’s become something I’ve had to learn over time with constructive feedback. I think that’s the number one message is that it’s not me looking at data and translating it. It’s a bidirectional communication with the audience. I am constantly looking at email messages, comments, questions, and likes and trying to see what questions people do have that I can address in the future, what criticisms they might have as well. Then when I do look at the data, I have kind of recognized that there’s, I wrote it down, four different steps that I take to translate that to meaningful use for people is, one, that it has to be in a meaningful context. There’s a ton of statistics out there. People don’t care about statistics if it doesn’t impact their life today. So, for example, I put an RSVP thing out today. We are seeing parents missing work at an all-time high, higher than during the Omicron wave, higher during the beginning of the pandemic. That’s impacting a lot of people right now. So, put RSV into context, why does this matter to them? Two, you have to remove or reduce cognitive burden. So, for example, there’s, again, a lot of statistics out there, but people can really be trapped in complex terms. So, we have to make it as least complex as possible. Scientists, physicians are terrible at doing this because we are trained to be specialists. That’s how we think. We are never trained to translate science to English, like I say. So, that’s difficult for scientists because we like nuances. In communicating science, you have to drop a lot of nuances, and that makes people really nervous when they’re trying to craft a message. How do you keep it accurate while dropping nuances is kind of the billion-dollar question right now. Third, add stories. One of the most viral posts I’ve ever written is what I was doing as a mom throughout the pandemic, literally chronicles of my kids are screaming when I put an antigen test up their nose, but you know what? Lollipops work after. Like really becoming a person, a voice, a face that someone can relate to. Then four, furnishing solutions. It has to have a call for action. There’s no point to scientific communication if there’s no call to action. I do think, though, that scientific communication is separate than advocacy. Unfortunately, a lot of scientific communication throughout the pandemic has bled into advocacy, and I see them as separate, especially if you want to reach a diverse audience that can really use the science for good and for their own meaningful way.

Karen Lynch: Yes. Just lightbulbs went off there about those two different things. So, I love that scripture, that it’s not advocacy, those are different things. So, it’s really important when we think about our messaging in this space, right? What is our aim and what is our goal? Translation is very different from advocacy. All right, so I have another question for you that came up just in our conversations. You keep talking about the questions that you’re asked, and it started with questions that you were being asked in the beginning. A lot of those questions, you say, “That’s a good question.” Even when I asked you a question, you said, “That’s a good question.” What is your definition of a good question? I know, she didn’t know this was coming.

Katelyn Jetelina: I mean, I think all questions are good. I think that as scientists, as professionals in the field, we have to recognize that it may be a silly question to us as scientists, but if one person is asking it, there are millions of people asking it out there. So, it truly isn’t a silly question to the general public. I also find questions really helpful in knowing what to talk about, honestly. In the beginning, I read every message that came through Facebook, but at a certain point, that wasn’t possible. I ended up creating a database that would find themes of people asking questions, and that’s truly how I try to develop a bidirectional feedback loop on a massive level, and that part, it has to be there. If not, then you’re going to fail as a communicator.

Karen Lynch: Yes. That’s so interesting. Again, we’re a community that asks a lot of questions, but I love this kind of paradigm switch to what questions would be asked of us, and I appreciate that so much. So, let’s go back to the data for just one minute. When you are looking at the data and you’re looking at the models and this very complex kind of part math, part just numerical information, what is your brain doing in that moment? How are you extracting what’s important? Do you have the questions in mind and you’re looking for the questions, or for the answers to the questions, or are you looking at that to see what jumps off the page for you?

Katelyn Jetelina: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s actively looking for questions, but it’s also I’m still a scientist, right? I am still looking at the trends and being like, “Holy crap, that’s not normal.” Like, why is that not normal, and then trying to explain it. So, I think it’s a little bit of both. I think that that’s what kind of keeps it interesting, and again, that’s what brings these two different communication strategies. It’s not only reactive, but it’s also proactive. You’re bringing people along for the ride. Throughout the pandemic, this was super helpful because you are threading a needle in this story of scientific evolution, and that was not done well at all on a national level. We saw that because it was very hard for people to pivot. I don’t need a mask, now I need a mask, now I don’t need a mask. I think that’s one of the reasons is we didn’t tell people what we were seeing in real time and it really burdened our response.

Karen Lynch: Yes. Super interesting. I want to kind of check in with Alexian. Do we have questions coming in at the app?

Alexian: Yes. So, the app isn’t quite working. So, I’m just texting Bridgette.

Karen Lynch: Okay, cool. So, we have questions. Yes. Are we going up to the mics? We have five more minutes. I’d love to field some questions. Yes, please. Thank you, Bridgette. Is it hot?

Male 1: I’m sorry, did I cut someone off? [Laughter]

Karen Lynch: Yes, you’re working. Perfect.

Male 1: My company has done some work with pharma companies that have COVID vaccines. One of the things we’ve encountered in the work, I’m not talking out of school here, is a real challenge between the company’s regulatory and instinctive need to talk science, and then discovering that often talking science isn’t persuading the end users in particular, the would-be patients. I’m just wondering if you’ve learned things through the course of your path here that would be helpful to bridging that gap. It’s not just answering the physician’s questions, it’s helping them explain things to patients in a way that they’re persuaded by it because, as you know, there’s a lot of conspiracy and whatnot.

Katelyn Jetelina: Yes, it’s a fantastic question. [Laughter] One is vaccine science does not equal vaccinations. Vaccines and vials does not equal vaccines in arms. That is something we have desperately missed in our pandemic response. That we have leveraged bench science a lot, which was needed. It got us vaccines in nine months. We have not leveraged social science. That has impeded. We have a 10% booster rate for fall boosters right now. I mean, it’s very obvious. So, there’s a whole science behind how do you persuade people to get vaccinations. One really interesting case study was in Marin County, which is in San Francisco. Marin County is a very wealthy County. It had one of the lowest vaccination rates about 10 years ago, just of all the routine vaccinations. It is now one of the highest counties with vaccination rates and they did that by leveraging social science. So, there’s a couple tricks of the trade. One, don’t talk about ivory towers, don’t talk about the FDA, don’t talk about CDC, rather talk about the scientists who created those vaccines. For example, Dr. Kizzy, who’s now at Harvard. She’s a 34-year-old black woman who developed the mRNA Moderna vaccine. So, talk about them as people. I think that helps a lot of people understand that we’re not trying to do harm. I think that there are certain words that work and certain words that don’t. Throughout the pandemic, I did try to share those because once I figured out who the audience was, that’s really important. Those are tips of the trade. So, I think that it’s still a challenge, and unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson yet either.

Karen Lynch: Yes, please.

Female 1: Katelyn. Question. Have you ever applied the principles of epidemics or epidemiology to social science and human behavior in terms of how do you infect people with an idea or behavior? So, taking the principles of how a virus might spread but then applying it to consumer, patient, human behavior and thought.

Katelyn Jetelina: Yes, absolutely. That’s actually kind of the theory that is based on violence epidemiology. It actually started with suicide, showing that suicide is contagious. So, just seeing it in the news, hearing another kid at a school committed suicide will impact other kids to be thinking about suicide and actually increases suicide ideation. So, that’s really where violence epi started, and since it’s grown to gun violence too – I mean, you just look at gun violence clusters in Chicago, and they exactly mirror clusters of cholera in Bangladesh. So, there certainly is that phenomenon. It is very in its infancy, it’s only about 40 years old, but we continue to look at that.

Karen Lynch: That’s so cool to think about. Anyway, yes, we have a question?

Alexian: Nope, nothing in the…

Karen Lynch: Still no app. App is still down.

Alexian: No, the app is working, but there’s no questions that we have.

Karen Lynch: Okay. Cool. All right.

Alexian: Any in the room?

Karen Lynch: Yes, please. We have 36 seconds less. No pressure. [Laughter]

Male 2: Thank you so much for this. This has been really interesting. Just I’m curious about one thing about sort of the story you’re telling about developing your newsletter, where you saw that your audience was a bit different than you were expecting, and then the response to that was to lean into that audience and trying to talk to them sort of as influencers as intermediaries between you and the public. I’m curious about what, I guess, the thought process behind that was. Did you think about trying to cater the newsletter more directly to the public at any point? Sort of what future did you see potentially for that sort of communication that is going directly to people as opposed to going by way of those sort of local leaders? I know it’s a very open-ended question.

Katelyn Jetelina: No, it’s a great question. I guess I say that a lot. [Laughter]

Karen Lynch: It’s all good. We do too.

Katelyn Jetelina: It’s a little bit of both. I think I also have an agenda in my mind, too. It was a little less apparent during the pandemic, but it’s certainly apparent right now, where a lot of people are not interested in the pandemic anymore, and I’m really trying to show people that public health touches our lives beyond a pandemic too, and really trying to show and string that along to see if I can keep people along for the ride. So, it’s a little bit of both. It’s me catering to people of what they want, but also it is very – I mean, I think about it a lot of what I’m going to post when. When do I talk about gun violence? Is it just after Uvalde? Is it a week after Uvalde? I think it’s kind of what other news sources do, right, to get clicks or whatever. What is impacting people right now and how can I drive that?

Male 2: Thank you.

Katelyn Jetelina: Thank you.

Karen Lynch: Thank you. We are out of time for this chat, which I just can hardly believe, but I’m going to give you the permission to give one kind of final word of wisdom before closing this communication loop, communicating what you take in with the audience that’s listening, final word of wisdom.

Katelyn Jetelina: Just remember that on the other side of science, there’s people, and we have to figure out a way to translate science, math, and statistics in a way that is useful for people or it’s just not going to stick. I think that’s a lesson that we can all learn not just during a pandemic, but all public health problems.

Karen Lynch: Yes. Thank you so much for being here.

Katelyn Jetelina: Thank you.

Karen Lynch: Thank you for coming and for sharing with us. [Applause] I’m like I don’t know if I should hug you in front of everybody. That feels like a epidemiology breach. [Laughter]

Alexian: Excellent. Thank you so much, Katelyn. That was fascinating. I just love hearing about communication because it’s such a core human principle, know your audience. So, it’s not just in scientific communications but a lot of those principles just apply to communicating with your family, communicating with your business partners. So, that’s really been a great talk.

– End of Recording –

A special thank you to:

The post Closing the Communication Loop: A Fireside Chat with Your Local Epidemiologist first appeared on GreenBook.

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