When we asked The Difference Collective’s members to nominate healthcare communicators who’ve made an exceptional impact in 2022, we were staggered by the number of names put forward and the breadth of the healthcare topics and issues they champion.
The last time we asked for nominations, we were in the midst of the pandemic. Our 2020 hero communicators were reaching out across social distance and isolation to help a shell-shocked world stay in contact, to understand and cope with the impacts of Covid-19. Thankfully, this year most of us have re-established direct social contact, but the outreach of healthcare communicators is just as important.
2022 feels like it’s been a year of breaking through taboos, using a whole range of platforms and approaches. Mental health, toilet habits, menopause, colostomy, suicide and bereavement have hit the traditional and digital headlines and opened workplace and household conversations that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
It seems to us that although we’re back in a more recognisable human society post-Covid, the need and desire for healthcare information from alternative sources has only increased. Access to face-to-face medical advice is still restricted for many of us. We’re more used to informing ourselves and making our own healthcare decisions. We value healthcare communication from people we build relationships with and trust beyond the medical profession. Through their authentic voices, human appeal and engaging use of different channels and approaches, our 2022 communicators have captured the attention and respect of wide audiences across demographics and generations.
The Different level communicators on our shortlist tackle health topics frankly. They use words, images, multimedia, hashtags, humour, deeply personal experience, storytelling, debate, interaction, sadness and celebration to make difficult subjects accessible and important information easier to understand. They’ve not only started conversations but prompted actions that will improve and even save lives.
We’ll be highlighting and celebrating these six exceptional communicators through our social media in the coming week. We recognise their dedication and their willingness to share, break boundaries, make connections with people whose lives are affected, and change the way the rest of us think, speak and act about formerly taboo subjects.
In selecting six communicators that we can meaningfully celebrate in this small way, we’ve regretfully set aside dozens of others suggested, whose healthcare commentary and content have also made big impacts. We hope we can highlight them in other ways and at other times: in championing and talking about every one of them within the Collective, we’ve all learned more and been inspired by their bold and influential healthcare communications.
Dame Deborah James
Almost from the minute she was diagnosed, the late Deborah James aka Bowelbabe chose to share her bowel cancer journey. Through the ground-breaking You, Me and the Big C podcast, she and her co-presenters talked publicly about the real experience of cancer in a humorous, plain-speaking way, through a podcast that entertained as well as informed. Deborah was a teacher, not a professional communicator, but she saw the potential of Instagram and TikTok to discuss bowel cancer symptoms, including checking your poo – no euphemisms for her! She changed how people talked about bowel cancer, bringing it into everyday conversations. In 2022, she didn’t shy away from announcing her terminal prognosis with a renewed rallying cry to the public to continue raising awareness and funds for bowel cancer research. Her legacy is a fund that raised over £7m to continue her work. Deborah gained the support of HRH Prince William who conferred her Damehood in a rare home visit. We honour the Different level of communication Deborah established right from the start and maintained all the way through her journey. We know the four charities supported by the Bowelbabe fund will continue to make an amazing impact: Cancer Research UK, Bowel Cancer UK , The Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity work every day to raise awareness of bowel cancer and to progress towards better treatment and cures.
Psychotherapist, grief counsellor, author and podcaster Julia Samuel has raised the profile of therapy, grief and living loss in a way that’s become particularly relevant in 2022, as families come to terms with Covid bereavement and the death of loved ones in care settings at a time when regular contact was impossible. Her compassionate but practical advice has struck a chord with people who are bereaved and grieving, helping them to make sense of the grief process, recognise what they’re experiencing and find effective support to manage painful emotions and have conversations about death. Her Grief Works app is an alternative or supplement to traditional counselling – a potential lifeline when a course of face-to-face counselling may be unaffordable or unavailable against long waiting lists. The app has been endorsed by healthcare professionals and charities including Marie Curie and Cruse. Although it’s chargeable, Julia makes free subscriptions available to those who can’t afford the £49.99 fee.
The Channel 4 documentary Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause premiered in May 2021 and changed the menopause conversation in the UK forever. McCall’s forthright honesty and empathy engaged millions of viewers, and the programme busted myths and challenged the Royal College of GPs on the lack of menopause training for doctors. Kate Muir co-produced and wrote this documentary. In 2022, Kate’s book Everything You Need to Know About the Menopause (but were too afraid to ask) fuelled further publicity and provided a practical handbook for menopausal women and allies to educate themselves. Kate is an activist for The Menopause Charity – her myth-busting poster ad copy clearly describes menopause impacts, signposts support and helps to normalise frank discussion in medical settings, workplaces and at home.
Dr Aziza Sesay
Dr Aziza Sesay MBChB MRCGP DRCOG is an NHS GP, educator, mentor and health prevention and education advocate. After her community health talks were halted in the Covid pandemic she took her communication online. Her health education via social media tackles often taboo topics in accessible and fun ways. A great example is her ‘why you need to check your balls‘ post on Instagram. Using everyday and upfront language, Aziza’s work is a shining example of health literacy in action. Aziza is a self-acknowledged visual learner – she says that seeing is believing, so she deploys an armoury of props and puts together attention-grabbing reels that often focus on sexual health and women’s health.
Doddie Weir, Rob Burrow, Stephen Darby, Ed Slater and Kevin Sinfield
In 2022, former Rugby League player Kevin Sinfield OBE has kept up his fundraising efforts for the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA) to take on seven ultramarathons in seven consecutive days this November, raising over £2m in sponsorship to date and generating acres of media coverage. His campaign honours sportsmen Ed Slater, Stephen Darby, Rob Burrow and the late Doddie Weir, all diagnosed with MND. Their rugby and football heritage have helped MND awareness-raising in traditionally hard-to-reach demographics. Doddie, Rob, Stephen and Ed have all shared their experiences with candour, giving a view of their own and their families’ lives with MND that has spurred many to find out more and join Kevin in fundraising for the MNDA.
Calm – The Last Photo
Calm is the Campaign Against Living Miserably. Calm’s The Last Photo campaign this year collated photographs of people who died by suicide, shortly before their death, to highlight the fact that you can’t tell someone’s mental state by looking at them. It made a powerful impression on many Difference Collective members. Calm says, “One suicide directly affects 135 people – leaving a lasting impact on family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances. We share stories in the hope that it might change someone’s mind. Covering the think twice moments, the turning points and sometimes, sadly, the memories of mates and loved ones lost to suicide.” The Last Photo campaign grabs attention for a reason: it’s supported by practical advice for everyone about how to talk without judgement about suicidal thoughts and support friends and family who may be struggling on their own. The message is clear: you could help save a life by talking.