Health Communication for Health Outcomes

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In India’s healthcare system, heath communication is a critical gap as it ultimately fails at prevention and consequently at disease control.

H

ealth has of late become an important issue in policy circles. With claims of being an emerging super power, India needs to focus on the health of its population. While this intention is laudable, we have to recognize that our approach of improving health is itself riddled with gaps. Our understanding of health issues seems to be limited to healthcare provision in policy. We fail to understand that first and primary requirement for a healthy population is prevention. That comes from informed population that is able to make choices that prevent health risks.

A widely prevalent belief among many is that the poor and vulnerable do not care about their health and hence the focus on prevention through campaigns is pointless. If anything, the truth is entirely to the contrary.

“In fact, the poor or at risk populations are deeply invested in their health. They understand that with sickness comes suffering, loss of income, debt and poverty. Their continuous effort is to prevent sickness. Hence, they value prevention information if communicated effectively and conveniently.”

The problem, of course, is that this is rarely the case. Most health prevention campaigns are directive, un-engaging and alien to cultural and social situations and rarely entertaining. Governments, public health authorities and doctors, take health communication too seriously. As a result, this communication rarely aligns with the audience, their values, aspirations, lifestyles and environment.

Why does this matter? Everyone values communications which resonates with them. As a result, all audiences expect the message to connect with them and this requires effort and understanding. For instance, talking moralistically about HIV prevention is hardly going to resonate with India’s youth who are the prime of sexual experimentation.

Moreover, in today’s age of hyper communication and with multiple medium’s seeking consumer’s eyeballs, why should they listen to your message if it isn’t well-crafted, doesn’t matter or resonate? If it doesn’t, the audience rarely receives the message. This is a critical gap in health communication which ultimately fails at prevention and consequently at disease control.

Is the government disinterested? In truth, it has no conception what exactly preventive health communication is. These programs are designed and managed by doctors who though committed lack even the most basic communication skills. They have no idea what preventive communication is and this isn’t their fault because this is not a skill they were made to develop. As a result, such prevention campaigns are at best boring, instructive and ineffective.

For prevention to be successful, we need committed communication professionals who can develop a multi-pronged communications strategy that can engage and inform diverse audiences and focus specifically on behaviour change, lifestyle change and challenging prevalent social norms.

“There is no defined method to this as differing situations require different approaches. Yet there are always thumb rules. These campaigns need to be simple and easy to grasp. They should be entertaining, but informative. People, the target audience, need to be able to identify with them. With vulnerable populations being judgmental rarely helps.”

Finally, it has to be empowering to an audience and not diminishing or directive. People want to feel they have made the right choice-not being coerced into making one.

The web is considered one of the most effective and necessary mediums for persuasive communication on health, globally. That it features many of the persuasive qualities of interpersonal communication makes it an important medium for key behavioural change. Moreover, its extensive reach allows us to communicate with large audiences. It is important for public health professionals to explore the design and evaluation of internet-based preventive interventions for health behaviour change.

Another aspect of preventive healthcare is finding and treating diseases as soon as possible. Some sort of illness hits everyone eventually, but many, many diseases – when caught early – can be nipped in the bud and full health can be restored. So it is important to become educated about illness and their symptoms, and what it takes to maintain good health, overall. Moreover, it is also important to visit your doctor on a regular basis– at least annually or possibly more often as you get older – in order to stay healthy and catch any disease early. If detected soon enough, a full cure is much more likely. It is also much more unlikely that most disease will become serious enough to negatively affect your lifestyle with debilitating symptoms or even loss of life.

So if India is indeed concerned about health, then national and disease specific strategies need to be created. We need to move away from boring and didactic communication and help people understand how they can improve their own health. Change begins with empowering people not instructing them.