Arthur W. Page Society

Getting the Message Out on Public Health

Dr. Tom Frieden, Page Spring Seminar 2014


Dr. Tom Frieden is the director and leader of the CDC, arguably one of the most respected U.S. government organizations. The CDC works around the clock to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and domestic. Its staff of over 2,000 people is based in 50 countries around the globe.

Dr. Frieden has had an impactful career: he led the World Health Organization on TB control program in India which saved three million lives and treated 10 million patients. He has managed “stop smoking” campaigns resulting in a decline in the numbers of teen smokers, and was instrumental in efforts to rid New York City of foods containing trans fats.

With any type of issue, the work of the CDC entails investigation and control, and communications is a vital part of the response. Through prevention (which necessarily entails education), lives can be saved, people protected and money saved.

And much like any organization today, Dr. Frieden confirms, “We work around the world. A disease anywhere is a threat (to Americans).”

As Dr. Frieden describes the work and dedication of the CDC and its staff, it’s clear how vital great communication is to the organization’s work. He outlines the three things that public health needs to do:

  1. Offer increased levels of information
  2. Protect people from others – whether that’s a drunk driver, or a heart attack caused by eating trans fats
  3. Help people work together on things like safe water, safe air, etc.

Citing the success of anti-smoking campaigns over the past few decades, Dr. Frieden says, “We’ve gone from an era where you’d ask: 'Would you like a cigarette?' to: 'Do you mind if I smoke?' to not even asking.”

And the 24/7 news cycle has just as much impact on the CDC as it does on so many of the speakers we heard speak throughout the conference.

“Being first with the news is key, especially in this media environment,” says Dr. Frieden. “Who gets there first and is quoted (sets the tone).” But disseminating accurate information must remain paramount, particularly where public health matters are at stake.

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