A few months ago, Dr. Garth Graham was idling around the house when he was approached by a 78-year-old relative. The relative, who’d been following recent COVID developments, had a question in mind: What’s the difference between DNA and messenger RNA?
Graham punctuates the story with a laugh, but says the exchange reinforced a valuable learning. “The need for evidence-based health information among all audiences is acute,” he explains. “And the pandemic has elevated the need for responsiveness, because the science is evolving in real time.”
That, in a nutshell, is why Graham joined YouTube earlier this year as director and global head of healthcare and public health partnerships. He feels a genuine sense of mission, especially as more and more pandemic-weary viewers turn to the platform for health content that alternately informs, enlightens, engages and entertains.
The mission is quite different now than it might have been in, oh, say, February 2020. “Who would’ve thought there would come a day when people would want to know more about messenger RNA? That’s a technology that’s been around since the 1990s,” Graham says, the disbelief thick in his voice. “This whole year has been a learning experience for public health in general.”
Graham’s arrival at YouTube coincides with the platform’s expansion of its health mission via the creation of a health partnerships team. Initial participants include both establishment heavy-hitters (the Mayo Clinic, the Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health, the American Public Health Association and the Cleveland Clinic, among others) and social-savvy physicians (psychologist Dr. Ali Mattu, fertility specialist Dr. Natalie Crawford, lung doc Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland). With the help of these individuals and institutions, YouTube plans to adopt a three-pronged focus: on credible information (causes/symptoms/diagnosis/treatment), guided practices (fitness classes/physical therapy demonstrations) and emotional support (testimonials).
Charged with orchestrating it all will be Graham, who brings with him a diversity of professional experience that seems ideal – if not outright necessary – for such an expansive role. Prior to arriving at YouTube, Graham served as CVS Health’s chief community health officer, a role in which he helped lead the organization’s COVID-19 testing strategy and population health initiatives. Before that, he worked at the University of Florida School of Medicine (as assistant dean for health policy), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (in three roles, including deputy assistant secretary for health, under the Obama and George W. Bush administrations) and at Massachusetts General Hospital (as an attending physician). During his HHS tenure, he also led the Office of Minority Health and played a pivotal role in the development of the government’s first National Health Disparities Plan.
“I’ve been in the private sector and in academia and in government, and I’ve worked on issues around disparities and access to care,” Graham says. “At CVS, I helped connect people to care at a local level. In government, I saw how health policy works from that 10,000-foot level.”
He believes that breadth of accumulated knowledge will serve him well in his new role. “At YouTube, the goal is to take evidence and put it into actionable terms that the average patient/consumer/person would understand, but it’s also about understanding that health is comprised of a range of factors,” he explains. “It may be about understanding your insurance status or about healthy foods you need to eat or what messenger RNA is and how that might influence your decision to get that vaccine. It’s about pulling it all together.”
Given the scale of YouTube’s influence – Graham notes that it reaches 2 billion people per month, “from the Bronx to Johannesburg to London to Indonesia” – the platform has its work cut out for it on the health front. There’s the obvious challenge of policing misleading or even dangerous health-related content, but there’s also the broader one that comes with presenting science and health information in a manner that is useful to individuals at all points on the health-literacy spectrum.
Graham embraces everything that comes with the dual mission. “We view this effort as a responsibility effort,” he says. “We want to take science out of the ivory towers and bring it to people, but we also want to elevate the caliber of science that’s being transmitted.”
Can YouTube thrive where any number of health publishers have fallen short? Over the next year, Graham hopes to up the volume of evidence-based health information, not just around the pandemic but also around disease states such as diabetes and hypertension.
“What you’ll see is the ongoing evolution of YouTube as a place to go to get credible information about science and public health,” Graham says. “Our job is putting it all together.”