A conversation with Dr. Jane Brearley, Founder and CEO of Intent Health about the need for representation in effective communications, medical assumptions and her annoyance with dated health messaging.
By Shereen Daniels
4 August 2021
Telling stories is a powerful way to teach, influence and inspire. More than creating a sense of connection, stories create familiarity and trust, cultivate norms, transfer tacit knowledge and facilitate unlearning. A story allows the listener to enter into a narrative where they are, making them more open to learning. Except. Except when the stories being told systemically exclude, and the attitudes and behaviours they aim to shape omit entire communities.
I caught up with Dr. Jane Brearley, Founder and CEO of Intent Health, a communications consultancy reshaping health communications, as when it comes to our health and wellbeing not all health campaigns are equal, and for Black people the inequalities are life threatening.
Public relations firms are image shapers, fashioning our attitudes and behaviours for particular purpose. For Jane this purpose is to prolong lives. She explains, “… if you do a blanket campaign educating in say, diabetes, it’s not going to cut it. You’re going to miss whole swathes of society as it’s not written with them in mind. Often, it’s written predominately, if not entirely, by a white creative team, based on data extracted from clinical trials that mainly uses white participants, without thought to cultural differences. How is that relevant to Black people and their health concerns?”
This conversation comes at a time when government departments and pharmaceutical companies are aiming to access more minoritised communities to improve health services but fall short and I wanted to hear Jane’s opinion on these efforts as I feel organisations excuse themselves too easily from the hard work, justifying pitiful efforts through a supposed difficulty in ‘finding’ minoritised communities to work with. That their efforts are thwarted as they don’t have ‘access’, “It’s total pretext.” she replied, “they need to talk with minoritised people, both in the world outside and their employees. And yes absolutely their workforce needs to reflect the diversity of life outside the company. Diversity has to be integral to the entire organisation’s thinking. For example, I’m a white middle class woman for heaven’s sake, what do I know of the realities of say, sickle cell disease, a rare disease that mainly impacts Black communities! And as the communications industry in the UK is 91% white what does the industry know of the disease’s nuances?”
Getting the right story to the sickle cell community to support their wellbeing has been vital to Jane and all at Intent Health. Their success Jane puts down to two thirds of the company’s employees coming from minoritised communities, “So diversity is being baked into the company, our teams have experienced sickle cell disease in their communities: in family, friends, professionally, in faith and life in all its guises. We’re not looking at this disease from an outsider’s perspective.”
Diversity of thinking isn’t enough.
Without insight into the true diversity of life experiences in a multi-cultural society
we’ve got to ask whose health are we improving?
Jane’s equally forthright about inclusive recruitment practices, “And don’t tell me there’s no diverse talent out there. Intent Health was set up nine months ago, we are 18 staff members, over two thirds of us are from minoritised communities, 50% of us have visible or invisible disabilities, and we’ve got really strong representation from the LGBTQ+ community. If you’re finding it hard to find diverse talent,” she tells other employers, “You’re looking the wrong way.”
If you’re going to change health behaviours, you have
to have a team of people that understands the multicultural society we live in.
It is the lived experiences of Intent Health’s staff that gives the PR firm the capability to explore authentic ideas, to test them against the reactions of real people to ensure those they’re trying to reach are not excluded, in the acknowledgement that, “Our people are the vehicle for bringing the audience inside the company and for putting intention into the centre of what we do.”
I am in the minority in Intent Health and my middle class white bubble is burst every day.
It’s uncomfortable yes, but in a good way. And that’s the whole point. It’s not my place to write the messaging for a campaign that needs to resonate with a Black community.
For Intent Health it is as simple as recognising that, as Jane puts it “If people don’t see something in a health campaign that they can connect with, they won’t engage.” And she is clear that this is not solely from content or delivery, but visual representation is vital, “If your communications campaign is based on a bunch of purely white faces, many people are not going to engage. And that means that they won’t change their behaviour. And this is their lives we’re talking about. We need to be creating consistent, generous, authentic and useful campaigns to prolong minoritised peoples’ lives. It’s that simple.”
I have heard first-hand the “urban myths” that still exist which have a real impact on health outcomes for the Black community – when a Black man requests opioids for a chronic condition, he’s a drug dealer. Black people have higher pain thresholds. Black women don’t get breast cancer. Black bones are stronger or denser.
And it’s all total rubbish. But more importantly it impacts the treatment and care that Black people receive.
In essence it’s all about effective, compassionate communication, “My big thing will always be, whatever disease we’re working on, is go and listen, listen to those communities affected. And actually listen, don’t just hear what you think they’re saying. And really take that on board. And I would say, if you’re going to do any kind of campaign, and this is our business model, co-create it with people who understand. Don’t assume. Don’t be a patronising fool and assume you know, what people need. Because you don’t.” With 25 years in the industry, remembering back to when medical communication campaigns were created in silos far removed from patient experience and the minoritised communities they affected, Jane happily imparts this advice to both pharmaceutical companies and government departments. “Thankfully we don’t work like that anymore,” Jane reminisces, “The critical dimensions of Intent Health – including all of the attributes that together define us as a business – are ultimately the functions of diversity.”
It is clear from our conversation that Intent Health is a bridge crossing a wide void in their pursuit for medical communications equality, yet their story is powerful enough to teach, influence and inspires others: to hopefully close the gap of inequalities in public health communication. Leading the way in creating an industry more equal and more powerful.