Conversations that Make a Difference: Hot Topics in Health Communications

Hager Sharp launched a new series of networking events for communicators and social marketers on Tuesday, October 25th, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. The Conversations that Make a Difference series will focus on current events, particularly in health and education, as well as current topics that impact our profession, such as emerging trends in media, literacy challenges, and evaluation.

Our inaugural Conversations event focused on a book just released from Jones & Bartlett Learning—Health Industry Communication: New Media, New Methods, New Message. Nancy J. Hicks and I developed and co-edited the book, now in its 2nd edition, to prepare students and practitioners for careers in health communication. The book covers a broad terrain with strong contributions from noted experts in a variety of topics, including crisis communication, effective use of paid and social media, health literacy and risk communication, ethical considerations, and advocacy for health policy changes. The book also includes many chapters with compelling case studies, such as a campaign that successfully engaged adolescent girls to take action to improve their bone health, a program that led children to improve eating habits and increase physical activity, and a campaign that enrolled participants in the nascent DC Health Link, the District’s health insurance marketplace put into place by the Affordable Care Act.

Nancy contributed a 30-year overview of the health communication field, and I contributed chapters on strategic planning for health communication and research and evaluation.

In the Conversations event, several of the book’s contributors joined area communicators and social marketing professionals in an interactive ‘town hall’ discussion of key topics in health communication. It was truly inspiring to hear these outstanding academic experts and practitioners discuss the topics that are so important to the work we do as communicators. The top five things I took away in this event include:

“In the 70s, you couldn’t say #breastcancer on the evening news. Health communications has helped change that.”

Nancy J. Hicks, a health communications consultant, talked about the evolution of the health communication field over past decades—from the 1950s, when hospital communication staff were part of the HR team and focused primarily on the employee newsletter, to today, when hospital communicators are part of the C-Suite and are relied upon for effective communication about scientific breakthroughs. And, yes, today we are all much more aware of risks and treatment options for breast cancer, thanks to the tenacious efforts of health communicators.

“How do you reach #younginvincibles? Through social media and by going where they are.”

Linda Wharton Boyd, director of communications and external affairs at the DC Health Benefit Exchange, inspired participants as she talked about her experiences in establishing and ensuring the success of the DC Health Link. She shared creative approaches for engaging partners to reach audiences “where they are” to make it easier for them to enroll in health plans. Because the Health Link prioritized young adults, outreach included midnight forays into some of DC’s most popular clubs and bars. Now, that’s dedicated social marketing!

“A small investment can go a long way in paid digital outreach.”

Jenny Smuland, CEO of InStrat Media, offered counsel on how campaigns can combine social and paid media approaches for maximum effectiveness… and sometimes for minimal budget. Magic happens with a targeted strategy for pinpoint accuracy!

“Perceived risk is a key variable in #healthliteracy.”

Paula Weissman, program director & professorial lecturer at American University, reminded us to take health literacy and numeracy challenges into account when we design our campaign materials and outreach vehicles. She cited some alarming statistics to get our attention. For example, only 12 percent of Americans are at a proficient health literacy level. While the health communication professionals in attendance could easily grasp the extent of that percentage, Paula pointed out that many people have a difficult time understanding the context and scale of percentages. It can be much easier for people with limited numeracy skills to understand “one in 10” rather than “10 percent” because it is less abstract (i.e., they can conceptualize 10 people).

“Why would you launch anything without testing it first?”

For my part, I offered suggestions about opportunities to introduce efficacy and effectiveness evaluation methods to communication practices. These methods incorporate a randomized control/intervention design for evaluating communication programs that mimic a randomized clinical trial approach and offer a stronger means of measurement. At Hager Sharp, we have effectively implemented these methods for evaluations of program elements of the National Diabetes Education Program at NIH/NIDDK, for example. We also engaged in discussion about the value of formative research—the concept testing, message testing, and unearthing of audience insights that can minimize the risk of a campaign investment and make it much more effective.

It was particularly inspiring for me to be a part of a community of caring professionals who strive every day to achieve a real impact in their communication efforts. Although they are extremely busy professionals, they took the time to come and engage with friends and colleagues to talk through ideas that make a difference.

Christina Mazzola Nicols,
Senior Vice President and Director of Strategic Planning & Research

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