The Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA has established an innovative new center to increase awareness of important health issues and improve the well-being of people throughout the world by harnessing the storytelling power of television, film, music and new media.
By collaborating with the entertainment industry and news media, the Global Media Center for Social Impact will help content creators and reporters craft compelling stories that accurately address a full range of public health issues — from the social determinants of health to climate change and early childhood health — with the goal of impacting global health.
"Currently, there is a huge gap between what we know and what we do," said Dr. Jody Heymann, dean of the Fielding School. "Therefore, we have a tremendous opportunity to transform lives, if research about what works in public health is widely known and applied across the country and around the world."
Housed on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, the center is ideally poised to engage the entertainment industry in creating compelling storylines by linking filmmakers, writers and other industry types with the experts and extensive resources of the Fielding School. The center will also collaborate with media organizations and producers around the globe to promote exceptional storytelling, effective reporting and interactive new media content that can help move research on population health from evidence to impact.
Launched with funding from a generous donation by public health leader and Fielding school professor Jonathan Fielding and his wife, Karin, the new center will be led by Sandra de Castro Buffington (founding director), a pioneering force for public health inspiration and information in the entertainment industry, and Dr. Neal Baer (project scientist), a pediatrician and award-winning writer and producer of TV shows and documentaries.
Buffington has nearly three decades of experience in health and entertainment education and works extensively with Hollywood, Bollywood and other world entertainment capitals to inspire and develop storylines that have a profound impact on knowledge and behavior. She created a global network for entertainment education with its hub in Hollywood and centers in India and Nigeria and has provided resources to leading scriptwriters and producers to improve the accuracy of health-related storylines on top TV programs and films. This groundbreaking work resulted in 565 storylines that aired on 91 shows across 35 networks between 2009 and 2012.
A recent TV program, assisted by Buffington and her colleagues, featured a storyline in which a character had the BRCA gene, which significantly increases the risk of breast cancer. Among viewers of the program, 11.9 percent reported scheduling a doctor appointment to talk about breast cancer risk after the show aired, and 16.5 percent said they searched for additional information on breast cancer online.
Previously, at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Buffington led the development of a $250 million strategic framework for global health leadership and management and oversaw strategic communication programs worldwide. She is a former associate faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and a past board member of the Pan American Health and Education Foundation.
Baer is an executive producer on the hit TV show "Under the Dome" whose past producing and writing credits include "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "ER. He has used storylines on his shows to educate audiences about public health issues ranging from the importance of cancer screening to the epidemic of rape in the Congo, and to spur them to action. He frequently conducts studies to examine the impact of these storylines. One of his episodes on "ER" tripled the number of viewers who were aware of the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.
Baer graduated from Harvard Medical School and completed his internship in pediatrics at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. His primary medical interests are in the fields of adolescent and global health.
Baer has worked in South Africa and Mozambique since 2006. He produced the documentary short "Home Is Where You Find It," directed by a 16-year-old orphan from Mozambique, which chronicles a young man's search to find a family after his parents have died of AIDS. His new documentary, "If You Build It," in which high school students design and build their own farmers market in the poorest county in North Carolina, will premier in theaters across the country in January 2014.
Baer will also bring his Center for Storytelling and Health to UCLA's Fielding School. Through the center, he has worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to strengthen outreach for documentary films focused on health-care issues.