Science, Pharma, and Healthcare Writing and Public Relations   


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Healthy People interview: Casey Fay, MS. adjunct health sciences professor

Thursday, September 4, 2014

ReadHealthy: What are you doing professionally these days?

Casey Fay: I am currently an adjunct professor at four different colleges. I teach first-year college students all the way to masters-level graduate students, so my students range in age from 17 to 60! I teach classes on personal and community health, health communications, human sexuality, violence prevention, health behavior theory, and women’s health.

RH: Why are you particularly excited to be teaching about these subjects? Are there knowledge gaps or misinformation in these subject areas that you hope to address?

CF: I am very excited about teaching women’s health, human sexuality and violence prevention. I love that I could be teaching about serial killers in the morning and the human papillomavirus at night! One of the things I love about teaching health is that it is so broad. It encompasses every area of our life and society. I am a big believer in the socio-ecological model. In public health, we often look at seven dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, spiritual and environmental. There simply is no dimension that doesn’t affect all of the other dimensions. They are all interconnected.

My main focus is sexual violence prevention and empowering young women to fight for their right to safety and health in our society. Safety is one of the fundamental needs we have as human beings, and the right to live without interpersonal violence is not something that is currently being upheld in our society. One in three women will experience interpersonal violence during her lifetime. How can I teach women’s health without focusing on the results of that violence on women’s lives? Trauma affects every one of the seven dimensions of wellness. On the flip side, I am also extremely excited about sex-positive education, which focuses on the need for comprehensive sexual education for all and looks at sexuality as a positive, life-enhancing and fundamental piece of our health. It may seem like a strange bedfellow with sexual violence, but they are very much linked. Teaching boys what healthy consent in a sexual encounter looks like is just as important as teaching girls what it looks like.

RH: What are some of the challenges that are unique to communicating health information to this age group? How can you overcome these challenges in your classrooms?

CF: The main age group I work with is 18-22-year-olds. Most of what I teach is interesting and engaging enough to keep students interested. What young adult doesn’t care about sex, right? However, teaching about interpersonal violence can be triggering for those who have experienced it. I am always mindful of this and include trigger warnings and resources for students. Often times they will disclose sexual and domestic violence to me and I will have to lead them to the resources they need for recovery. So while it can be a dark subject, I bring in many survivors/guest speakers who are thriving in their lives to show that, despite what society says, they are not “broken” or “damaged” forever after experiencing violence.

Another struggle I have is overcoming many of the preconceptions students come with from having grown up in a rape-prone society. We have to break down the myths about sexual assault one by one. Sometimes that can be exhausting. However, I am fortunate that that there are many fields to draw from in doing so; I draw from neuroscience, behavior theory, and the fields of sociology and criminal justice to accomplish this monumental undertaking. By the end of the semester, they get it. Not only do they get it, but they are able to educate their peers as well.

My techniques are somewhat unique, but I believe in active student learning. Lecturing is one of the most ineffective teaching methods out there, but yet we still use it as our main technique in the classroom. Why? My background in health communication taught me about analyzing different communication methods based on the audience. This audience likes engagement. So you might walk by my class and see students testifying about how access to birth control affects their lives in a mock Congressional hearing, or they may be practicing condom negotiation with each other. They also love YouTube videos! Kids like those, and there are some great examples of health communication online. There are also some terrible ones, so I also use these to show how to analyze media for credible information.

I do experience challenges in the general education health classes. Students come in thinking “why do I have to take another health class? I already took one in high school.” They think I am going to lecture them on their diet and exercise. In reality, diet and exercise are the last things I teach about. I save it for the end of the semester when I have already established a relationship with the students and only after I cover all the other dimensions of health. That may seem unconventional, but you have to grab their attention from the start and make them understand that health is not just about those things! Because I base my classes on the socio-ecological model, they are also surprised by how much we cover on issues that they never considered in relation to health. For example, how issues like institutional and structural racism affect our health. So by the time we get to eating and exercise, we have already set them up to make those connections. They learn how media and advertising affect our body image and influences eating disorders, and how poverty and living in unsafe neighborhoods affect the decisions we make about eating and exercise. This helps them understand both their own and other’s decisions about health behaviors.

RH: What is the most rewarding part of your career? Why?

CF: I get to change lives every single day. When students walk into my class at the beginning of the semester, I tell them that what they learn in my classes might just save their lives, and I one hundred percent mean it. I take that responsibility seriously. I know that I am empowering students to make changes, not just in their own lives but also to influence society in positive ways that support health. What could be more exciting and rewarding than that?

RH: How do you hope that your students will be changed or influenced after experiencing a semester with you?

CF: The scientist and health communicator in me is always trying to develop instruments to evaluate the ways in which my students are influenced/changed by spending the semester with me. I evaluate this in many ways: I always start with pre-surveys and conduct post-surveys at the end to measure changes in knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes for each topic. I also ask them to write a letter to the next class of students about their experiences in my class. I am always amazed at the responses. They often give specific examples of how what they learned changed their beliefs about themselves, about the world and about health. They almost always talk about how I turned them into a health and social justice activist! That is what I want for them. They don’t have to agree with me or the general public health view on things, but they need to be able to articulate their views and work toward positive change for themselves and society.  Most of the time, I think I accomplish this.

RH: What are some particular areas of health that are most interesting to you, professionally or personally? Why?

CF: My own experience as a sexual assault survivor, my mother’s death from her heroin addiction, and growing up in poverty influenced my interests. Also, I worked in mental health and drug addiction and saw how much of it stemmed from issues of sexual trauma and domestic violence. What could be more fundamental to our health than feeling safe in our own homes and environment?

RH: Why do you choose to be a health communicator? Why is it important?

CF: I am not sure I chose it; I think it chose me. From the time I was a kid, I was writing about health issues. I started my own herbal health company by the age of 12 with a business plan and educational materials I developed. By 18, I was a personal trainer and conducted classes on aromatherapy to hospice nurses. I started out in alternative health, but I soon realized I needed science to be an effective health crusader, so I went to school and got a pre-med/biology degree. Then I tried biomedical research before going back to working with people. Viruses didn’t talk back, which was nice, but I missed communicating with and educating people. My decision to get a master’s degree in health communications stemmed from my desire to learn how to be a more effective health communicator. We need people who can take scientific research and translate it into practical health information. I think health communicators can fill that role.

I see many people in health care settings with good intentions attempting to disseminate health information. However, they may not have developed the skill set or have the knowledge to do it effectively, so they waste time and resources. When I teach grad students in health comm, the one thing I stress to them is to use the research already out there to help them develop more effective messages. I use the example of teaching a male audience about sexual assault. I would love to just tell them to stop perpetrating sexual violence, but the research shows that not only is that not effective, it also alienates men. As a result, many sexual violence prevention advocates spend time creating messages that not only don’t achieve their purpose, but also may do harm. Health comm teaches us to how to create effective campaigns. Through research efforts, we know that a more effective message is to emotionally appeal to men by helping them understand the effects of sexual violence on the people who experience it.

We also need health comm to help providers better understand how to communicate with their patients. We have great providers who don’t understand how to communicate effectively with their patients. This summer I got to teach new physician assistants communication methods to effectively screen for interpersonal violence. Teaching them how to ask three simple questions has the potential to change so many lives, but they need to be taught how to ask and how to respond.

RH: What are some of your favorite health practices in your own life (exercise routine, nutrition, mediation, therapy, etc.)?

CF: All of the above. I make sure that people understand that being healthy doesn’t mean being perfect. Would we say someone in a wheelchair could never be physically healthy? No more than we can say that someone who struggles with mental illness can never be emotionally healthy. It is about taking positive action. For me, this means going to therapy when I need help dealing with issues in my life, exercising regularly, and engaging in my daily Buddhist practice through chanting.

RH: “If I could tell everyone on Earth to make one healthy change in their lives, it would be to _______.”

CF: Remember that whatever it is that they feel is more important than their health right now will not matter if they are dead. Sounds crazy I know, but we often feel like we don’t have time to exercise or eat well because we are too busy with school, work or taking care of our family. We can’t do any of that if we are not alive. I know it is an unconventional way of motivating someone, but it is how I finally came to the realization that I had to make my own health a priority.

RH: What are your five favorite healthy places to visit on the internet?

CF: I generally don’t take internet health advice. I go straight to the research literature. However, I will give you some of what I recommend for students.  Of course, they focus on women’s health!


Our Bodies Our Selves

Women’s Health. Gov

Planned Parenthood

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network