How To Ensure Your Work Doesn’t Sit on a Shelf and Collect Dust

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Hallie Goertz is the communications manager for the Digital Health team at PATH, one of Seattle’s most innovative and accomplished global health organizations. Maybe you’ve heard about the female condom? Or the latest polio vaccine? Or new ways to supply clean water to resource-poor countries? These are all PATH technologies. What’s slightly less well known, but equally important, is PATH’s work to help countries strengthen digital health systems. It can be tough to communicate about digital health because you can’t always see it or feel it the way you can with water, medicines, or well, a condom.

We talked to Hallie, who’s a Minerva colleague and friend, about why her work is challenging and rewarding. We also checked in on her coffee and wine intake, and what she’s planning for 2018.


 Q: When most people think “communication” they usually think about writing blogs or calling journalists. What you do is very different. What’s your job?

A: My job has organically grown and developed over the three years I’ve been at PATH.  I started out helping project teams be more thoughtful about deliverables. These traditionally – not just at PATH, but throughout the sector – took the form of long-form, narrative reports that are great at filling up bookshelves. I really wanted to move away from creating products that gathered dust, so I started asking questions:  Who is our audience? How do they access information? What do we want them to do after learning about this work? Why is it important to share this finding? These questions helped us start to develop materials that paired great content with smart design – ensuring that our target users would be interested in and excited to read them.

The Digital Health group at PATH began using this user-centered design approach even before I started my job. One of the best examples of this early work is Planning an information systems project: A toolkit for public health managers. It was published by the WHO and PATH in 2013 and was written to help public health managers plan for the implementation of information and communication technology (ICT). The design marries beautifully with the content. It has color tab dividers for the eight step-by-step chapters, direct and simple text, lots of pictures and diagrams – people just want to pick it up and use it. This publication was one of the first of its kind for global digital health and it quickly became the gold standard because it’s approachable, nice to look at, the content is great and easy to understand, and, most importantly, people use it.

In the past year or so, I’ve started to focus on how PATH – not just the Digital Health team – can more effectively communicate about our digital initiatives. I don’t have a health or a tech background, but I am good at helping health people and tech people come together and gain a common understanding of their work which can then be amplified more broadly. More than half of my time is spent working with project teams to strategically develop and refine their messaging, documents, decks, and other deliverables. We’re really thinking through: How do we make this as simple and distilled as possible? How do we ensure our findings are used and continue to inform the sector? Our collective goal is to move people from thinking about digital health as an add-on, to instead just thinking about health.


Q: How did you become a global health communicator?

A: It has been a journey. I came to Seattle to go to graduate school at the University of Washington almost 20 years ago and started working with a small foundation doing traditional fundraising work traveling all over the Pacific Northwest. Then I moved to a social enterprise nonprofit that had a little consulting arm, where I discovered how much I liked client-based work. From there, I went to a boutique consulting firm that worked with public sector and nonprofit organizations. I absolutely loved it. My clients were often these big-hearted organizations with small budgets that needed just a little bit of support to better set and implement their strategies, and then demonstrate their outcomes.

During this time, the boom was on and Seattle was awash with VC funding. I was recruited by a scrappy little company that developed learning programs for financial, aerospace, and tech companies.  They were looking for a strategic manager and while I thought I absolutely bombed the interview, they liked me, and I joined them for about a year before being laid off when the bubble popped. While I adored the people I worked with, during that year, I realized that I needed a job with a bigger mission than just turning a profit.

As luck would have it, a friend was doing a volunteer consultancy with an NGO called TechnoServe. He was in Rwanda setting up a training program for a brand-new $50 million initiative to improve coffee quality and markets for smallholder farmers. He was leaving to go back to his real job, and called to see if I’d be interested in taking over. I took the gig, rented out my condo, packed a couple of bags, moved to Kigali, and stayed for three years. TechnoServe ended up bringing me on full-time to oversee training and capacity-building for their coffee initiatives in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya. I worked with amazing people, traveled to places I never expected to see, and learned a ton about coffee.

When the coffee initiative wound down, I did a bit more consulting for TechnoServe in East Africa and India but after almost five years of being overseas on-and-off, I was ready to go home. The expat life is amazing, but it can also be exhausting and not always entirely healthy – physically or socially.

I was back in Seattle for about three months, doing a bit of consulting, when a friend told me that the Digital Health team at PATH was looking to fill an open position focused on capacity-building and communications. The job – with its mix of field and HQ work, emphasis on impact, on top of PATH’s mission and tremendous reputation – was just what I was looking for.


Q: Digital health is heady stuff. What helps people understand and appreciate it?

A: It comes down to impact – people want to know how digital health impacts people’s lives and storytelling is a great way to accomplish this.

We talk a lot about “Nurse Lucy”. She is a health care worker in Tanzania who has recently started using an electronic immunization registry.  This digital tool means that she spends less time filling out laborious paper records, and more time providing care to babies. We’ve collected similar stories about the moms who have bar codes on their children’s health cards, so any clinic can pull up that child’s health record. Then there are the ministry of health officials who have access to better quality data on vaccine stocks so they can reduce loss and maximize resources.

Telling stories allows people to step into someone else’s shoes even if they don’t fully understand the technology. And once they forge this connection, we can get them excited and build that understanding of what the technology is and does.


Q: How do you get the hard-core digital health technologists at PATH to buy into communication efforts?

A: It takes lots of listening, and being honest about what I know or don’t know. I’ve found it helpful to say: “I’m not an expert. Help me understand your work, and then I can help other people like me to understand it.” My goal is to ensure that we get the right message to the right people in the right way, so they deepen their engagement in what we do.

I also find it useful to apply user-centered design – an approach that techies frequently apply in their own work.  We develop personas to represent the audiences who will be on the receiving end of our communications efforts. We work as a team – often involving external stakeholders to validate our output – to build out these ‘characters’ by answering questions like: Who’s our key audience? What’s their education level and familiarity with this content? How much time do they have to engage with this content? What tools do they need? What channels do they use?

It also helps that we’ve already developed some top-notch products that are widely used and recognized so they know that they can trust me to honor their content.


Q: What are the most exciting things you’re working on?

A: Currently, we’re convening a lot of multi-stakeholder discussions to help raise up best practices in the sector. I find this type of collaborative work tremendously rewarding as it often uncovers opportunities for true innovation and acts as an accelerant to help the sector as a whole improve health impact.

We just kicked off a new initiative called Immunization Data: Evidence for Action that grew out of a regional immunization data initiative. We’re bringing together organizations that have been doing – or are interested in – similar work to assess what we have collectively learned. Our goal is to develop and later amplify a framework of recommendations to guide future policy, funding, and implementation. It should be a great series of meetings and I’m looking forward to crafting the dissemination strategy.

We’re also working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to develop standardized digital health terms. How many conversations have gone off the rails because people have a different understanding of what a single word means or how it is used? One of the things I most value about PATH is our interest in identifying and supporting efforts that benefit the entire global health community.


Q: You travel a lot for your job. That must get tiring. How do you deal with it?

A: This year, I hit 140,000 miles on Delta. A combination of trips to Washington, DC, Geneva, and East, Southern, and sometimes West Africa. Jetlag is real and as I get older, I certainly don’t handle it as well as I once did.

I recently came back from Tanzania where I was drinking coffee all day, and wine all night. My sleep cycle was a disaster. So now I’m on a partial caffeine break and I’m aspiring to drink coffee only in the mornings – like a normal person.

Working out is another coping mechanism for the travel. I’ve tried to make time for fitness almost every day since I was in my early 20s. While I’m travelling, I run (treadmill or outdoors depending on where I am and more importantly what the weather is like) or do pilates in my room. I find that exercise is a great way to clear my head. It’s meditative and provides precious alone time. It makes me feel fresher, better, happier.


Q: What do you do to relax?

A: I’m trying to read more – it’s a New Year’s resolution. I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts but it doHallie wineesn’t feel the same as diving into a good book. I tried a Kindle but think I’m going to switch back to print – not very digital of me, I know. There is something so satisfying about working my way page-by-page through a really good book.  I have the New York Times list of “Best Books of 2017” to get me started.

I also have a fascination with wine – from vine to glass. My friend and I tried winemaking a few years back – in our garage. We haven’t been able to do it recently because of my travel but I really enjoy going to wine regions to try new styles and learn about new methods. I went to Valle de Guadalupe in northern Mexico for a mini-break in April and had a work trip to Portugal recently where we fit in some wine tasting. I volunteer for a winery that has a tasting room on the East Side [of Seattle]. Wine making is a fascinating fusion of hard science and creativity/artistry. It’s a fun hobby and maybe someday a second career.


Q: What do you like best about your job at PATH?

I work with the best people. As you go through jobs and work with different clients, you start to figure out what you need in a job and what motivates you. I want a mission that drives me, some autonomy, and I need to work with people whom I deeply respect. I have all of that at PATH (and more). The people on the Digital Health team are brilliant, funny, and fun. They’re always looking for better, newer, cooler ways to do things. We’re all driven by the idea of changing the world, and that is a tremendous environment to work in.


About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.