UW News

October 9, 2008

UW researchers to lead two CDC-funded projects exploring communications with vulnerable populations, health-care providers in emergencies

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

When a public health emergency strikes, a key to survival is effective communication between the local health department, health-care providers and the community. A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant will provide evidence for selecting the right communication mode for the right situation. The goal is to strengthen public health systems’ communication and response to a variety of emergencies from 911 calls to communicable disease outbreaks.

Researchers from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Washington will lead two of the projects, while the third project will be run by communications researchers at Public Health — Seattle & King County. The projects address:

• Improving 911 and public health call center interactions with non-English speaking callers;

• Improving emergency health alerts between public health and health-care providers; and

• Exploring the use of texting and other cellular technologies to reach vulnerable populations before and during emergencies.

The Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center (PERRC) at the Northwest Center for Public Health Practice was awarded the $6 million dollar grant, and was one of only seven centers in the United States to receive these grants. Led by Dr. Mark Oberle, associate dean for public health practice at the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine, and Dr. Susan Allan, director of the school’s NW Center for Public Health Practice, the grant funds three projects over five years.

“Prevention is the key to a healthy society, but there has been only limited research into public health systems that has allowed us to make informed choices,” Oberle said. “This PERRC grant is a great step forward in improving public health systems and we are thrilled to have had our proposal selected.”

The projects represent a unique collaboration between the UW, the Northwest Center, Public Health — Seattle & King County, and other state and local health jurisdictions in Washington and Montana. Integrating the work of public health practitioners and the academic research center will ensure that the work is grounded in practice but provides an evidence base that can be used to improve public health communications nationwide.

“We appreciate the federal government funding this work so we can say what really works when we’re communicating during an emergency,” Allan said. “This is a great opportunity to identify how best to communicate with health-care professionals.”

Research into public health systems is a relatively new emphasis for public health research generally, and focuses on providing evidence for best practices and high performance in public health settings. In a funding environment that typically places emphasis on medical care delivery over public health and prevention, this new federal grant fills an important gap, Allan said.

“Collaboration of this kind strengthens the public health system as a whole,” said Dr. David Fleming, director and health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. “A robust public health system saves lives and improves the health of our whole community during an emergency and every day.”