Communicating About Health: 7 Tips to Up Your Game

Last month, I attended the Society for Health Communication 3rd Annual National Summit, held on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Health communicators from research groups, fellow PR agencies and federal leaders spent the day learning about topics like health literacy, design thinking and challenges we face in the field, as well as potential solutions to those challenges.

The day was full of reminders of best practices in communicating about health. The questions and calls to action posed by other communicators — like one speaker’s challenge to create a Smokey Bear-like figure for the pro-vaccination movement — left me feeling inspired and energized.

Here are seven health communication tips that I took away from the Summit:

1. A challenge that communicators often face is proving the value of communications to scientists and researchers. A simple and effective solution is to speak their language by using data to offer evidence behind the success of communications in health, such as the impact it has made on reducing smoking rates.

2. When communicating risk around an emerging health issue, communicators should consider writing from a digital media perspective, since the information put forth will be distilled and shared in snippets suitable for digital platforms.

3. People who have low literacy skills may experience difficulty with multisyllable words, have lower memory skills, or have a narrower field of view when looking at printed materials. It’s important to keep these considerations in mind when developing educational health materials.

4. Many communicators believe that pitching pre-packaged data visualizations and graphics is helpful to media outlets, but oftentimes outlets have their own digital teams. Delivering raw data that outlets can adapt may be a better approach in some situations.

5. In building meaningful partnerships with the corporate sector to advance health outcomes, one approach is to offer companies the ability to review your data.

6. When communicating about the negative effects of unhealthy behaviors, focusing on quality of life outcomes might have the greatest impact on your audience. Through formative research and user testing for its Tips for Smokers campaign, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention learned that smokers were more motivated to quit when they heard about the challenges of living with a smoking-related disease rather than dying due to smoking-related causes.

7. The words we use to describe an issue shape how an audience views that issue and the importance they ascribe to it. By avoiding using public health terms like “herd immunity” that have little meaning to a lay audience, we can communicate our messages more effectively.

Learn more about the Society for Health Communication and how you can get involved ahead of the 2020 Summit.