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The Role of Health Communication in Public Health Campaigns

By: Mariah

In honor of National Public Health Week (NPHW), let’s talk about the relationship between public health and health communication! Each year the American Public Health Association (APHA) dedicates the the first week of April to recognizing the importance of public health and raising awareness of pressing public health issues. During NPHW the APHA outlines a variety of goals to help our nation become healthier, and shares information with the public to raise awareness of the goals and value of public health. For 2016 the conversation is centered around building the healthiest nation by 2030, so goals include changing health infrastructure, reducing barriers to care, providing quality care, increasing economic mobility, and creating more access to healthy food. These aspirations have the power to impact how people experience health in a variety of contexts. Health communication specialists are poised to help advance these causes in unique ways.

This NPHW info-graphic illustrates all the different factors that influence a person’s health. It’s clear that overall health is impacted by more than just the absence of physical disease. The environment, available economic resources, behavior, and other factors contribute as well. As health communicators, we are able understand how these factors operate for people in their daily lives and how it impacts their experience of health. Additionally, we know it is important to understand the perspectives of different stakeholder groups in developing and implementing public health policy and awareness campaigns. As health communication specialists, we are trained to understand all sides of the issues. By doing so, we are able to develop informative, appropriate messages to educate, encourage behavior change, and engage people in health. This enables us to bridge gaps between different groups though communication, thereby promoting public health.

An example is useful for conceptualizing this. Imagine a community trying to launch a healthy eating campaign directed a youth. At first glance, it is easy to make assumptions as to what the messages should say. Obviously the campaign should explain why healthy eating is good for overall health. However, this assumption does not take in to account the other possible reasons why the youth in the community may not be choosing to eat healthy foods. It is possible these children already know and agree that healthy food is better, but have other reasons for not choosing it. Perhaps they cannot afford it, do not know how to prepare it, do not know where to find it, or do not like the taste of the food. All of a sudden the idea of promoting healthy eating becomes a little more complex. By understanding the community and what actually motivates them to make health behavior choices, health communicators can begin to develop nuanced campaigns that address the root of the problem. If youth do not know where to find food, the messaging shifts from explaining why food is healthy to explaining where to shop for nutritious food. Similarly, if youth do not know how to prepare food, a campaign might focus on recipes and teaching kids how to enjoy healthy food. By understanding the goals of the public health policy and the motivations and of the community, health communicators can help implement more successful outreach and awareness campaigns. 

As health communication specialists, we are trained to see different perspectives, know different audiences, and bridge gaps between different groups to promote health in a variety of contexts. In this way we are able to support the goals of the American Public Health Association and help become the healthiest nation by 2030.  

Photo taken from the 2016 National Public Health Week.