"From the moment I learned about Whole Communities–Whole Health, I was excited to join this team," Michael Mackert says. Now, five years later, the health communication professor is the steering committee chair of Whole Communities–Whole Health (WCWH), UT Austin’s grand challenge dedicated to better understanding how biology, the environment, and physical and emotional health affect the overall well-being of families in underserved communities, like those in southeast Travis County. Mackert succeeded outgoing co-chairs Sarah Kate Bearman and Gigi Awad in May.
We spoke with Mackert about WCWH and what makes it unique — in particular, the way it "Brings Science Home" by returning results in near-real-time through a smartphone app so that the study’s participants can make informed decisions about their health. We also asked him about his vision for WCWH, communication in health care, and his role as the father of a veritable menagerie (of both humans and animals) at home.
Tell us about yourself. How did someone with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry become an expert in health communications? Also, you have three degrees from Michigan State. How did you end up at UT?
It was in the middle of my chemistry degree that I started to realize that wasn't the career for me. I was taking electives in communication — a lot of communication and database/web programming in my spare time as a hobby — so I decided to go in a different direction and pursue those interests in graduate school.
The year I was on the job market, UT had a call for faculty interested in health communication. UT is a school I knew I would be fortunate to work at, in a city I knew I'd love to live in. Landing in advertising was also an unexpected — but extremely beneficial! — step forward in my career.
What role(s) should communication play in health care?
Communication plays a role in health care in everything from the interpersonal (how people talk to their health care providers, how people talk with family and friends about health) to mass media (social media, how journalists cover health issues) and public health campaigns. Being thoughtful about communication, and understanding what works (and what doesn't), is essential to helping support individuals’ personal health and public health goals.
Why did you want to become involved with WCWH? How do you think it does/can/will make an impact
From the moment I learned about WCWH, I was excited to join this team. To me the two coolest parts of this project are 1) the community-involved partnership on the research goals and methods and 2) the data-return piece.
When I have talked about Whole Communities–Whole Health, I focus on questions like, "What are the problems the community cares about?” and “What are the research strategies that UT could pursue that are okay with them?"
Second, I think the idea of getting community participants their own data back in real-time — it's their data and getting it back to them can help support their own health — is extremely exciting. As a health communication researcher, there are all kinds of exciting opportunities about how to get that data back in ways that are easiest to understand and then take action on it at the individual and community levels. If the data return thing doesn't happen, we’re just doing an extremely expensive, relatively small cohort study.
I think the idea of getting community participants their own data back in real-time — it's their data and getting it back to them can help support their own health — is extremely exciting.
Why is the data-return aspect of the study so crucial?
We were [recently] interviewing people for a job, and we told them the goal is to get people their data back in real-time. It's not “Read the article in The New England Journal of Medicine 10 years from now, and then buy a time machine and go back in time and make different decisions for you and your family and your community.” So, I think as (the data return piece) gets up and running and stronger… it should all live in the app, and then we get to A/B-test different visuals — that's the goal. I think that's the real magic of the study.
As chair of WCWH, what are your goals, and what do you see as the biggest opportunities for the coming year?
The entire WCWH team has done a wonderful job engaging directly with the community that we are working with. One of my biggest hopes for this coming year is to invite other UT researchers to join WCWH and build their own research into the platform that WCWH has already built. It's not just a study — it's a platform faculty across campus could benefit from if they are engaged. I think for a lot of faculty at UT, who can sometimes wonder, "Does anyone read my research?" — who might not always see the real-world implications of their work — WCWH makes that real for people.
You often talk about the interdisciplinary nature of WCWH as well.
Right. Faculty who feel like they're looking for another home on campus, or a way to sort of break out of the floor of the building they work on, Whole Communities–Whole Health is a really cool way to do that. I've learned so many neat things through working on this project. And I think that for faculty who get excited about working in a university, it's true for Whole Comms — it's true of the other two grand challenges — you think, "Oh my God, there are so many smart people on this campus doing such neat stuff." And it's harder to find that if you're in your own little universe, teaching classes in your department and only interacting with the faculty in your school.
How do you see WCWH evolving long term? Does it morph into something bigger or different? Does it integrate into an existing program at UT?
I think that's one of the biggest questions at the moment, and not in a bad way. There are a lot of ways WCWH could evolve, depending on how new faculty get involved and where the community itself might want the project to go. My biggest hope would be that all this time and partnership between UT researchers and our community partners could continue in the long-term, even if some of the individuals involved and the focus of particular research projects might change over time.
What do you like to do when you’re not being a public health advocate?
We have four kids at home, so we spend a lot of time at various kids’ sports and events. In our calmer moments (when they occasionally appear), we enjoy Marvel movies, playing games at home, and a few too many animals (two dogs, two cats, a guinea pig, and a fish tank).
Michael Mackert, Ph.D., is the director of The University of Texas at Austin Center for Health Communication and professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations and Department of Population Health. His research focuses primarily on the strategies that can be used in traditional and new digital media to provide effective health communication to low-health-literate audiences. He leads projects on a variety of public health issues — including tobacco cessation, opioid overdose prevention, and men's role in prenatal health — that generate evidence-based health communication strategies for our partners and contribute to health communication scholarship. He was named WCWH chair in May.