Andre Blackman graduated from the University of Maryland School of Public Health in 2005 with a B.S. in Public and Community Health. He’s an advisory board member for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, producer for Health:Further,and co-founder of the FastForward Health Film Festival. He's also the CEO of Pulse + Signal, a strategy and innovation consultancy for health and healthcare. Mr. Blackman will be the Spring 2016 Commencement speaker for the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

In one sentence, what is public health to you?

Public health is the application of strategic practices aimed at improving a group of people's wellness and capacity to thrive.

What inspired you to study public health?

I was a sophomore engineering student at the University of Maryland, and took an elective course with Dr. Donna Howard. I learned about the impact that tuberculosis was having on a specific community of people, and the strategies for communicating best practices. From a science/engineering perspective, it was utterly fascinating. Dr. Howard led each class with such deep knowledge and conviction -- her enthusiasm was contagious (no pun intended). I left engineering to study public health after that class, inspired to make a difference.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on? How does your work relate to this challenge?

Our biggest challenge in the public health field is being able to see beyond established frameworks, and partnering with innovative initiatives that may not always fit inside traditional procedures. This goes into being able to equip the next generation as well.

In the years since I graduated from UMD, I became exposed to new and exciting avenues being constructed around the health & healthcare landscape. These gave me a chance to look at entrepreneurship, startups and health innovation. As the concept of healthcare innovation became more popular, I saw a lot of people who were interested in building new tools/systems, but had no background or experience in health. For example, companies are creating apps, but don't have sound concepts as to how behavior change works to make it a truly valuable addition.

There's so much opportunity in public health for us to take the lead on these kinds of concepts, but the field often lags behind. In traditional public health, grant funding is the way most initiatives move forward -- but a mixture of smart business frameworks could be applied to make them more sustainable.

Keeping up with new consumer perspectives, and the tools to be agile enough to meet their needs in a strategic way, will be imperative for the future.

After college, I continued my career in health communications and started blogging around 2007. There wasn’t really anybody else talking about the intersection of public health, technology and digital communications at the time -- so my skills in this area were largely self-taught. I can't stress enough the value of just connecting with people and communities, which was aided through social media's early days. 

Why did you choose public health at UMD?

I researched the instructors I would be taking courses from, and pretty much everyone was brilliant in their own right. The faculty really showed their passion for the material they taught and I felt like this field was a perfect fit for my problem-solving mindset.

What person or experience had the greatest impact on you during your degree program?

Being inducted into Eta Sigma Gamma [the National Health Education Honorary] by Dr. Bob Gold was a great moment for me that pulled everything together.

Another experience would be my senior internship at Westat in Rockville, Md., where I worked on evaluating the VERB campaign, a CDC initiative to get kids more active by working with celebrities to showcase movement. We showed that the media intervention was working. Once we submitted our report, several months after I graduated, I heard that the program's funding was cut. That was a turning point in my career. In my idealistic mind, I thought: “We showed positive impact, why would it get cut?” I didn’t get a good answer; that’s just how it works sometimes. We put a lot of money and effort into that campaign, but it wasn’t sustainable. That didn’t sit well with me.

Talk about your evolution from studying community health at the UMD School of Public Health to specializing in health communication, specifically in digital/social media. How did your degree program shape your career?

Studying community health opened my eyes to a lot of practical issues in a community. It taught me to think broadly around disease prevention, and how to get a community to understand a problem, and how it's impacting them. There was that great base of learning, but just like everything else, you have to get out there and get exposed to the elements to become useful and practical. The degree helped me to think through my people skills and cranked up my ability to connect more with people one-on-one and communicate my own thoughts. And as far as my evolution into digital and social: You have to learn how to leverage the right tools to reach the right people.

How would you describe your health communication philosophy?

It's all about listening, and introducing smart design concepts in any kind of initiative. If we're trying to reach people to change their behavior and inform them better, it's of utmost importance that we not only time our efforts during the right points in their lives, but also work alongside them to co-create solutions that actually get to the root of the problem.

What’s a project you’ve worked on that showcases this?

Shortly into my career, I started doing freelance work in health communications. I was working with the CDC’s “I Know” campaign, aimed at educating African-Americans ages 18-24 about sexual health.

During a visit to Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, I gave a presentation about social media in that demographic and later that day was working with some students. I was able to get ideas from the students because I could hear what was relevant to them and their peers. There was no amount of research I could have brought in that would have given me that information. For me, that was a light bulb moment in terms of the whole co-creation aspect of public health: You have to embed yourself into that community you are trying to reach.

What’s the importance of digital communications in the practice and study of public health?

If the people we are serving are using digital tools to get their information, communicate with friends and family, and to generally help improve their lives all around, then we absolutely should be making sure that those same tools get integrated into public health initiatives. We also need to make sure that a fundamental understanding of how digital tools are useful in other industries is being translated into public health innovation. We need to ensure that the next generation is having these communication and entrepreneurial strategies integrated into their understanding of public health.

Published Feb. 16, 2016