In Crafting Successful Public Health Campaigns, Music Strikes a Lasting Chord

Benjamin H. Levy III, MD


October 06, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hello. I'm Benjamin Levy, a gastroenterologist at the University of Chicago.

As a music major and premedical student at the University of Virginia, I started organizing concerts. Afterward, I completed a Fulbright fellowship in Paris with the Orchestre de Paris and the Paris Opera. Over the past 15 years, I've been lucky to combine my passions for music and medicine in order to teach others about public health.

During medical school at Emory University, I organized Music Inspires Health, a rock and hip-hop concert tour around the country featuring musicians, such as Ingrid Michaelson, Trey Songz, and Ben Kweller.

I got the idea based on the pioneering work of the rock band Queen, who in 1992 organized the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert after their famed lead singer passed away of AIDS. The concert featured the biggest rock stars of the day, with U2, Guns N' Roses, and Elton John among the acts helping Queen teach the world about HIV prevention. The concert was broadcast to a billion people in 76 countries around the world. Through their efforts, they were able to decrease the stigma around HIV and to teach people about consistent condom use. It made a huge impact on public health and inspired me to continue their work with health education projects.

[As part of Music Inspires Health], I organized a [45-member] national medical advisory board to help me that included three previous directors of HIV Prevention and STD Prevention at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the director of Public Health from Los Angeles County, and several medical school deans, including at the University of Virginia and George Washington University School of Medicine. We had a business advisory board to help us put together a marketing strategy, and I learned many important lessons, which I'll share with you today.

Around that same time period, Katie Couric was working on another campaign called Stand Up To Cancer. It was formed in 2008 and was accompanied by the subsequent recording and release of a song titled "Just Stand Up!" performed by a number of important artists, including Beyoncé, Carrie Underwood, Sheryl Crow, Miley Cyrus, Fergie, and Mary J. Blige, just to name a few. They were trying to encourage people to gain knowledge about cancer and cancer prevention, and to raise funds for cancer research. It was a really important campaign.

How COVID-19 Gave Rise to a Colorectal Cancer Screening Campaign

Now, fast-forward to the pandemic. During that time, I was co-chair of the Chicago Symphony's Soundpost series. My friends and I at the Symphony came up with the idea of teaming up musicians with physicians and nurses on the frontlines to teach the public about physically distancing and wearing masks consistently and properly. This was during the first lockdown in April 2020. We got the idea to broadcast a health education concert via Facebook. It was 90% entertainment, but we had physicians and nurses nationally help us record public service announcements (PSAs) that we broadcasted every Saturday night. That campaign was called "Concerts and Cocktails."

From that, I was asked to develop a TEDx talk on how to organize health education campaigns using music and concerts.

The president of the American College of Gastroenterology saw my TEDx talk and asked me if I'd be interested in teaming up with them to organize a concert for Colon Cancer Awareness Month to encourage the public to get screening colonoscopies.

We also wanted to teach the public about the new colonoscopy guidelines. The American Cancer Society had recently changed their guidelines in 2018 to begin screening patients between the ages of 45 and 50, because of an increase in colon cancers that were detected at age 49. Since then, all three major gastrointestinal societies have adopted these guidelines, and now the official age to start screening colonoscopy is 45.

So, we developed Tune It Up: A Concert to Raise Colorectal Cancer Awareness. We organized it with the help of Katie Couric, who recorded a really cool PSA for us. Over the past 2 years, we've organized concerts in March for Colon Cancer Awareness Month that have included such musicians as Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, Lisa Loeb, Tim Reynolds, violinist Hilary Hahn, the Chicago Symphony, and the Cincinnati Pops, among many others. This has been a truly successful campaign.

Also, in 2021, the Stand Up to Cancer campaign developed additional programing, including a new concert that was broadcast worldwide featuring both Stevie Wonder and Common. They also worked to develop a colorectal cancer screening campaign with the help of hip-hop artist Chuck D.

Tips for Creating a Public Health Campaign That Works

Now I'd like to share some lessons about how to build a successful health education campaign.

The first tip is to do your formative research. For all of my projects, I've had both focus groups and surveys — online and paper surveys — in order to understand what health topics our target audience wanted to learn about and in what way. We also tested our PSAs with focus groups. This is incredibly important.

It's also important to build a great team, including public health experts who specialize in health communications, outcomes researchers, medical experts who can help develop the PSAs with accurate health information, as well as marketers who can assist with social media strategy and branding experts. For Music Inspires Health, the 45-member national medical advisory board that I put together was critical to developing health education messages that would be empowering.

Additionally, I've always used social media to get our words out. It would be naive to think that a one-off event would change people's behavior. Instead, you have to hit people in several different ways over a long period of time. So, for each of our projects, we not only develop poster campaigns but also social media campaigns, including the use of Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. It's important to get the health information out there via both social media and livestream events.

There's also been some research into using music to actually impact health outcomes. Many people use music as a coping mechanism to help with stress in their life, and I encourage everyone in the public to do that. It's great to come home at the end of a tough day or if something is going on in your life with your family or your health, and listen to music. That will help you decompress. In fact, the American College of Cardiology performed a study that shows that in patients with heart failure, listening to music decreases heart rate, oxygen demand on the heart, and respiratory rate, and can actually prevent a future heart attack. Pretty amazing.

Of course, for years musicians have used music as a way to deal with depression and to start a conversation internationally about this. I have several favorite examples, including The Fray's song "How to Save a Life." Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" talks about mental health, illness, and drug abuse. Pearl Jam recorded a song called "Jeremy" about depression and bullying, and R.E.M. a song called "Everybody Hurts" about depression. These songs have decreased the stigma associated with both depression and anxiety and, in my opinion, have made a major impact on how we think about mental health today. More recently, the singer and actress Selena Gomez developed a health education campaign called "Your Words Matter," which she started in 2022 around mental health.

Music can be used as a powerful platform to teach the public about health in a fun, nonjudgmental way. Over the past 15 years, public health experts have increasingly used music and concerts to reach large audiences and to improve health on a large scale. As the American public struggles with the obesity pandemic, we encourage physicians and public health experts to teach about exercise, nutrition, and diabetes prevention with music-based health education campaigns, something that will resonate with our target audience of adolescents and young adults. We also hope to improve smoking cessation, breast cancer screening, and colonoscopy screening rates through the use of music.

As a gastroenterologist, my colleagues and I are working hard to teach the public about the guidelines recommending colonoscopy screening to begin at age 45, because of new data that showed a jump in colon cancer rates at age 49. If we start screening colonoscopy at age 45, we can remove polyps before they can turn into a cancer.

Organizing nationally livestreamed concerts for Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March featuring rock, hip hop, jazz, country, and classical musicians has allowed us to reach both mainstream and vulnerable patient populations. Our goal is to encourage the public to get screened with a colonoscopy so that our patients live healthy and long lives.

Thank you.

Benjamin H. Levy III, MD, is a board-certified gastroenterologist at the University of Chicago. His clinical projects focus on healthcare disparities and the development of colon cancer screening campaigns. Previously, as division head of gastroenterology at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr Levy organized a gastroenterology clinic for refugees resettling in Chicago. He is a member of American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) Public Relations Committee and FDA-Related Matters Committee. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Levy started an international health education campaign named "Concerts & Cocktails" that teamed up musicians with physicians and nurses on the frontlines. He was subsequently selected to be a speaker at TEDxWrigleyville for "Humanity: An Inside View of the Pandemic." An avid cellist, Dr Levy recently served as co-chair of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Soundpost Series. In 2021, he started Tune It Up: A Concert To Raise Colorectal Cancer Awareness with the ACG. 

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