When outbreaks such as the coronavirus or Ebola threaten to become pandemics, people often panic. Understandably, everyone wants to know how to stay safe, and inevitably, myths and misinformation can spread. In such moments, the importance of health communication becomes especially clear.
Effective communication helps people learn protective measures to limit exposure to disease, busts myths such as hair dryers being able to kill the coronavirus, and allows administrations to advise healthcare workers about their rights, roles, and responsibilities.
However, public health does not rely on effective communication only during emergencies. Health communication can also promote behaviors and choices that can positively impact people’s general well-being and everyday lives.
No matter how important the message, without expert communicators in public health, it may not reach the individuals and communities who need it. Developing a clear understanding of what health communication is can help public health professionals looking to promote healthy behavior on a local or global scale.
How do public health professionals convince people to take actions that can keep them healthy? While no singular approach can achieve this tall order, education and advocacy play an instrumental role, and both rely on health communication to work effectively.
Health communication is an area of study that examines how the use of different communication strategies can keep people informed about their health and influence their behavior so they can live healthier lives. It draws from many theories and disciplines, including social cognitive and communication theories, marketing, and public relations.
Public health experts recognize health communication as vital to public health programs that address disease prevention, health promotion, and quality of life. It can make important contributions to promote and improve the health of individuals, communities, and society.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlines critical ways health communication can enlighten people. In addition to increasing awareness about a health issue or solution, it can also shift social norms by influencing attitudes. For example, health communication campaigns have helped to reduce the stigma around HIV and AIDS, making it easier to convince people to get tested.
Health communication can describe healthy skills, such as performing monthly self-breast exams, as well as demonstrate the benefits of adopting new, healthier behaviors. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s campaign featuring real people’s stories of living with smoking-related diseases prompted many people to quit smoking.
Health communication campaigns help educate people about specific health issues, as well as influence audiences to adopt healthier behaviors. They usually aim to impact large audiences and require considerable resources and organizational partnerships. However, the efforts it takes to launch them can pay off. By following the right strategies and keeping certain tips in mind, public health professionals launching health communication campaigns can achieve success.
Before coming up with goals or plans, it’s important to develop a layered understanding of the issue. Start by assessing the health problem, breaking it down by whom it affects and how. Then identify all the components of the solution. This information gathering and analysis allows for thoughtful and realistic goal setting.
Successful campaigns begin with clarity and focus. That means first identifying a larger goal and then narrowing in on specific objectives to achieve them. A goal of simply raising awareness is too vague.
Before creating any materials or plans, identify the audience and the subgroups within it. From there, learn as much about the audience as possible, including information about attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, social environments, and physical environments.
Market research can prove useful in gaining these insights and can also help to forecast what barriers may prevent people from changing behaviors. When targeting more than one audience, analyze each one individually.
Theories and models contribute to each stage of the campaign process by answering key questions about why a problem exists, who to target, what information is needed, and which strategies can make the greatest impact. Theories and models can also help campaign teams determine the objectives and approach, develop materials, and design evaluation tools.
Use research-based strategies to shape messages and campaign materials. Then, explore the channels that will be most influential based on market research. In addition to television, radio, and magazines, campaigns should take advantage of social and digital media, including podcasts and blogs. When appropriate, distributing free or reduced-price products related to the health issue makes an impact.
Many health communication campaigns form partnerships with other organizations to achieve their goals. Before making this decision, consider both the benefits (e.g., additional resources, added expertise, and more credibility) and the drawbacks (e.g., undesired compromises and less control). After deciding to form a partnership, set clear guidelines regarding roles, etc.
Prior to launch, test the communication materials with people representative of the target audience. This will give you valuable insight into how effective the campaign may be. Make revisions based on audience feedback to strengthen your campaign materials.
Attention and publicity help ensure successful campaigns. Consider ways to bring interest to a campaign launch, such as hosting a community event, promoting the campaign on social media, or sharing the campaign with local media outlets.
After implementing a campaign, start evaluating it. This involves tracking audience exposure, assessing reactions, and adjusting as necessary. Process evaluations offer insight into the extent a campaign has adhered to plans, and outcome evaluations help show how effectively campaign messages are reaching intended audiences. This information should guide public health professionals in making needed changes.
Even in the face of limited funds, campaigns must still set objectives, assess audiences, and pretest. Neglecting any of these steps can prevent a campaign’s success before it has started. To overcome budget constraints, collaborate with partners to pool resources, work on a smaller scale, call on the help of volunteers, and reduce developmental costs by following the examples set by successful campaigns.
Well-designed health communications have a real impact, which is why public health professionals must consider how to reach an audience, accounting for the different ways people process and receive information. Understanding an audience’s beliefs about how a health issue is relevant to them, for example, can help professionals to craft effective health messages.
The most effective health communications are:
- Not only relevant and accurate but also unbiased and nonjudgmental
- Culturally competent (taking into consideration the differences in the audience’s educational levels and religious and cultural beliefs)
- Easily accessible in terms of location, language, and format
- Actionable (providing resources and instructions that allow people to act on advice given)
- Available to as many people who need the information as possible
- Balanced, recognizing both risks and benefits
Health communication can refer to healthcare providers discussing information with patients, public health officials holding public meetings, nonprofit organizations hosting forums, or government agencies giving press conferences. It comes in the form of different media (e.g., articles, videos, pamphlets, and educational events) and is delivered on various platforms (e.g., social media, radio, websites, and television).
The following types of health communication serve important and distinct roles:
Health education focuses on educating audiences on health topics such as HIV transmission or suicide prevention. It combines different learning experiences that inform people about health issues so they can take action.
Health education can take place in a variety of environments. Schools may incorporate a suicide awareness campaign that includes a curriculum involving speakers telling personal stories, as well as lessons about depression warning signs and resources for help.
In addition, doctors’ offices might give out pamphlets about colon cancer, or dentists’ offices might play videos about proper dental hygiene. In all of these cases, the information helps bring awareness to the audience, preparing people to make healthier choices.
Health advocacy promotes health by working to ensure people can access health care, advocating for effective healthcare policies and reforms, and developing ways to make it easier to navigate the healthcare system.
Individuals and communities may feel at a loss when it comes to finding qualified doctors. They might not know how to check the accuracy of medical bills. Health advocacy aims to create programs and tools that can resolve such issues.
In public health, health advocacy seeks to address the determinants of health — the combining social, physical, and environmental factors that affect people’s health — through community-wide interventions. These could take the form of a health campaign to reduce high-risk drinking in universities or a community action plan to tackle the barriers hindering African American women from getting cervical cancer screenings.
Risk communication involves delivering information about the risks of certain behaviors, such as not getting immunizations. It involves engaging audiences to inform them about key health issues that pose health risks, as well as responding to questions from audiences.
The handling of risk communication depends on audience perceptions. Understanding how people perceive a particular health risk will shape how health communication experts frame their messages.
For example, people may show little concern for high-risk situations. In such cases, the communication needs to provoke more concern. On the other hand, a low-risk situation may create a disproportionate amount of worry. In such cases, the communication must aim to manage anxiety levels.
Crisis and outbreak communication involve handling urgent situations and unforeseen events. Crisis communication might entail giving information after an industrial accident, natural disaster, or a terrorist attack, whereas outbreak communication conveys information about a sudden increase in a disease such as the measles or the coronavirus in a particular area.
Experts advise the following best practices when handling crisis and outbreak communications:
- Build trust with the community.
- Make announcements early.
- Convey transparency.
- Show respect for public concerns.
- Plan in advance.
Several health communication theories and models can support disease prevention and health promotion efforts. They guide public health professionals in the selection of the most appropriate interventions, their development, and their implementation.
Social cognitive theory considers how people’s experiences and environments, as well as others’ behaviors, influence their health behaviors. Social cognitive theory suggests that identifying the benefits of a behavior change for people, instilling a belief they can change a behavior, giving them a chance to observe the rewards of the behavior change in others, and offering incentives for behavior change can result in changed behavior.
The health belief model, adapted from social cognitive theory, can serve as a framework to evaluate or influence changes in behavior. It suggests that people’s perception of their vulnerability to a risk can predict their behavior. Vulnerability refers to how susceptible people believe they are to a health problem and how severe they perceive the consequences of that health problem to be.
The model proposes that people weigh the costs and benefits of changing a behavior before making decisions. For example, people may consider how likely they are to crash while riding a bicycle and how serious such a crash could potentially be. They will then weigh those assessments against the cost of a bicycle helmet and their perceived discomfort of wearing one before they decide whether to use a bicycle helmet.
The health belief model suggests that behavior changes rely on four factors:
- Incentive: A reward or benefit earned for following the behavior
- Risk perception: A belief that not following the behavior poses a serious risk
- Benefit perception: A belief that the benefits of the new behavior outweigh the risks
- Self-efficacy: Confidence that one has the ability and resources to make behavior changes
The theory of reasoned action suggests that health behaviors require that people make it their intention to perform them. Different factors help predict people’s behavioral intentions — their attitudes toward a behavior and subjective norms. Subject norms refer to the social and environmental pressures surrounding a health behavior and a perception of personal control over making a choice to change. When people feel positive about a behavior, and the social and environmental factors support the behavior, the probability of behavior changes increases.
The stages-of-change model, sometimes called the transtheoretical model, came about in response to studies that analyzed people who quit smoking on their own. Researchers wanted to understand how they had achieved this goal. By examining the cases, they determined the people had stopped smoking because they were ready to.
Furthermore, they concluded that changes in behavior occur in a cycle. This insight became the basis of the stages-of-change model, which identifies the stages in the behavior change process. Health communications can target a specific stage to move people toward a desired behavior.
The model outlines six stages of change:
- Pre-contemplation: No intention to change a behavior and potentially a lack of awareness there is a need for change
- Contemplation: Intention to make a change and a plan to do so soon
- Preparation: Intention to take action in the immediate future, along with small steps to make the behavior change
- Action: An initial change in behavior, with the intention to continue with the change
- Maintenance: Ongoing behavior change, with efforts to maintain the behavior
- Termination: No desire to return to old behavior
Health communication offers many rewarding opportunities to those who enter the field. Health communication careers span several areas, including health education, health literacy, outbreak communication, health and policy advocacy, and patient provider communication. Professionals in this field can also find positions in the private, public, and government sectors.
Using their knowledge of behavioral science and mastery of verbal and written communication, public health communication experts can work in a variety of capacities. They may design health intervention campaigns to promote prediabetes screening for organizations, or they could work as a public health crisis and risk communication expert, developing materials to educate the public about disease outbreaks.
Those inspired by the opportunity to build health awareness and empower individuals and communities to improve their health should consider a career in health communication. With the right education and a devotion to public health, aspiring health communication experts can create health equity and ultimately save lives. Explore how the Online Master of Public Health from Tulane University can help prepare you to pursue a meaningful career in health communication.