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Agency Leadership NHS Health

The public health comms gap: We have the behavioral data, now we have to use it

By Ryan Dunlop, Strategy Partner



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May 1, 2024 | 7 min read

For The Drum’s health & pharma focus, Jack Ryan’s Ryan Dunlop looks at the gap between theory and practice in public health comms.

A messy pile of medical pills

Public health messaging needs an overhaul - first, we have to understand how it got here, says Ryan Dunlop / Myriam Zilles via Unsplash

If you’ve recently had to endure time in an accident & emergency waiting room (or even just a hospital visit), then you’ll have been subject to leaflet overload, poster fatigue, and a mismatch of communication styles, from cringe-worthy animations to stock images that belong in old PowerPoints that never see the light of day.

This is the reality of health communications, whatever the theory we talk about at a higher level.

The way that health communications are devolved to local levels sounds excellent on paper: being able to talk to local people through their local issues. But in practice, what we’ve seen is a race to the bottom, with marketing procurement determined that something physical they can touch, fold, and pop on a shelf is proof that they’ve done their job, rather than thinking of the audience. We are essentially living in an alternate reality.

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The public health communications gap

In other words, despite living in a world where marketing effectiveness, measurement, and accountability for media investment are paramount, there’s a significant shortfall in one of the most critical communication campaign types we could be involved in as marketers: public health.

I’ve had the recent privilege of leading strategy across several high-impact cancer campaigns for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). In this kind of work, enabling early diagnosis is paramount. So is understanding that behavior change is crucial to encouraging and nudging people towards these better outcomes. Yet, there’s a clear emerging difference when you talk to NHS trusts and regional health boards regarding how they communicate – clear enough that you can see it from any waiting room in the country.

Why is it this way?

Can we the NHS, or health boards, for this predicament? The answer is no.

As marketers, it’s our responsibility to educate. We have profiling and audience insights, and we understand what works.

There’s that old idea, perhaps apocryphally attributed to Einstein, that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. This is the loop that a lot of our health boards are in, and the only way of breaking it is to up our game; we need to take these local communications and marketing procurement teams on a journey.

Is it all down to a lack of knowledge or understanding about what is possible? Possibly not, as we see a clear difference between national activations and those at a regional level.

Perhaps, then, the process is the villain. When we consider what KPIs these campaigns focus on and the sheer volume of ‘needs’ of a health service, we start to realize that although overall budgets are healthy, they are cross-divided up to such an extent that it all ends up being about how quickly things can be actioned, and we end up with a silo effect. Or something like a silo effect – in my experience, teams are willing to share, but with self-imposed barriers, it all ends up rather silo-y.

Nudging the nudgers

The way around all this is to bring people together. We’ve seen recent successes by organizing sessions bringing together trusts and health boards. By removing self-imposed barriers and looking at collaboration, you’ll soon see the enthusiasm to finally do away with the ‘that’s just the way we always did it’ logic. Just think of how we nudge people for vaccine uptake during more extensive campaigns; we’re doing the same thing to drive actions among health boards.

To improve health communication campaigns, we need to start by changing the mindset of those involved. Instead of focusing on physical materials that can be touched, folded, and left on a shelf, we need to focus on the audience and what will engage them. By doing so, we can create campaigns that are more effective in encouraging behavior change and improving public health outcomes.

Next, we need to break down the silos that exist between national and regional health boards. By working together and collaborating, we can create more cohesive campaigns that are more effective in reaching the target audience. This will require a shift in mindset and a willingness to embrace change. The benefits will be worth it.

For more analysis of the health and medicine landscapes, head over to our health and pharma in focus hub.

Agency Leadership NHS Health

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