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Health Communication Needs to Change to Prevent Spread of Disease

Most health communications strategies focus on disseminating factual information. The problem is getting people to take action, and providing facts alone doesn’t work.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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The California Department of Public Health recently declared the 4-month measles outbreak stemming from an infected Disneyland tourist was officially over — just in time for a student at the University of Texas at Austin to be diagnosed with mumps. Both of these diseases are preventable with a measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.

This begs the question: How do we get more people to take preventive healthcare measures, such as vaccinating? After all, in the measles outbreak in California, more than half of those infected had either not been vaccinated or had not yet received the full measles inoculation series, leaving them vulnerable to a preventable disease.
The problem is getting people to take action, and providing facts alone doesn’t work. It’s a fact that measles and mumps can cause serious complications, even death. It is a fact that two vaccine doses have been shown to be 97 percent effective at preventing infection. It’s a fact that recent research disputes a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. And it’s a fact that vaccination rates continue to decline in certain communities.
And that’s the issue. Most health communications strategies focus on disseminating factual information. We assume the more people know about a disease — from the H1N1 flu strain to whooping cough to the mumps or measles — the more likely they are to take specific actions to protect themselves from infection and spreading it others.
This is logical, but it’s not the most effective approach. Simply put, there’s a distinction between health education and health behavior change.
Behavior follows not what people know, but what people think they know, and most people do not want their strongly held — and, yes, sometimes incorrect — beliefs to be contradicted. My global study investigated the relationship between objective knowledge (facts) and the knowledge people actually apply to themselves and their behaviors.

It’s the personally relevant knowledge (“How does this relate to me?”) that determines actions. Simply being exposed to more facts about a disease, such as through a traditional health education campaign, does not motivate a person to wash hands more frequently during flu season, get vaccinated, or even stop smoking — the latter offering a visible disconnect between knowledge and action.
Message creators need to know what people believe before merely presenting facts. Develop campaigns that consider the motivations of those receiving the message, not just the goals of those delivering it. Think of the California measles outbreak: The research supporting vaccine-caused autism, a stated reason for not vaccinating, was once published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal and created a tremendous amount of fear that some still hold.

We have to acknowledge this and connect new facts to persistent beliefs so the information builds on what is already personally relevant.

It’s that connection that prompts people to take action — not simply presenting facts with the expectation that they will change beliefs. Our research shows that strategy doesn’t work well.
Moreover, health practitioners must also “think locally to impact globally” because global interconnectedness — from Twitter and Instagram to YouTube and CNN — means that messages communicated in one country will likely be seen in another, leading to public confusion and information rejection by all populations if messages are not developed with both local and global prior health beliefs in mind.

And nowhere is this more necessary than for young and culturally diverse populations, whether in Austin, Anaheim or anywhere in between.

After all, information can spread just as quickly as disease, and misinformation is especially virulent. The remedy is accurate and credible data, but only if you can get people to take the medicine.
Linda Golden is the Shelby H. Carter, Jr. and Patricia Carter Regents Professor in Global Business Marketing in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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