The Role of Health Communications in Behavior Change

By APCO Alumna Katie Milgrom

Clients enlist communication firms for a wide variety of services, from media relations to stakeholder engagement to event planning.  And often, clients ask for help to change opinions and behaviors, particularly someone’s health behaviors.

But here is the question – is it even possible to change someone’s health behaviors simply through communications?

Before exploring whether communications can prompt behavior change, it is important to understand what health communications is, as well as what it can and cannot do.

The CDC defines health communications as the “study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence individuals and community decisions that enhance health.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Making Health Communication Programs Work, health communications can:

  • Increase knowledge and awareness of a health issue;
  • Influence perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes;
  • Prompt action;
  • Demonstrate or illustrate healthy skills;
  • Show the benefit of behavior change;
  • Advocate a position on a health issue or policy;
  • Increase support for services; and
  • Debunk myths and misconceptions.

Health communications cannot:

  • Make up for a lack of access to health services;
  • Produce sustained change without a larger program; and
  • Be equally effective in addressing all health issues.

Promoting Behavior Change

Throughout the past few decades, health communications has become a widely recognized and validated discipline that is a critical component to most health programs. Numerous studies have found that mass communications interventions can significantly influence the health behavior of populations; however, the behavior change effect is often modest.

So how can health communications initiatives more effectively promote positive behavior change?

  • Ground your program in theory: Any successful communications program aimed at changing behavior must be grounded in theory. Theory provides the roadmap for program development and evaluating its success. Frequently, communication plans and associated programs are developed based on what is easy or attainable, not on an evidence-based approach. Instead, health programs and companion communications campaigns should find components of at least one behavior-change theory (e.g. Health Belief ModelSocial Cognitive Theory,Extended Parallel Process Model (Ch. 3, Witte) to help improve the program’s impact.
  • Integrate social and digital media: Now more than ever, consumers rely on the Internet for health information. When harnessed appropriately, digital media is a powerful tool that offers communicators the opportunity for two-way communication with consumers that no other channel allows. Social and digital media is key to informing and influencing behavior, as well as extending the reach of engagement. These should never be afterthoughts in a program and should be integrated from the very beginning.  
  • Focus on consumer empowerment: In the end, health communications is not about telling people what to think, but what to think about. So much of our health is a result of our own behaviors. Health communications can help to lead to healthy behavior change by providing consumers with the frame through which to look at issues and how to think about them.
  • Take an ecological approach: Remember that not all behaviors can be changed by simply targeting the individual. Some behaviors are so tightly woven into social norms (e.g. smoking) that an ecological approach targeting the individual, as well as their community and broader environment, is critical. There is a better chance at changing some behaviors with this comprehensive approach.

In the end, behavior change is possible through health communications, but it takes time and a strategic approach.