By April Sciacchitano (@aprilcs)
As health communicators, we liaise between health organizations and the American people. It’s a huge opportunity because communication is an area of innovation in health. It also means we have more opportunity, if less authority, than medical professionals to help people create healthy lifestyles. The National Center for Health Statistics reported in 2008 that Americans see a doctor an average of four times per year. As marketers, we “see” people much more often.
In balancing doctor’s orders and corporate wants, we make health information less complex. But we also need to give it relevance and meaning. Communicators won’t be the cure all, but we do have a lot of power to shape how people understand and interact with their health.
For example, medical professionals have long talked about comorbidities. Medical research is making connections – if you’re obese, you’re more likely to have asthma. If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to have arthritis. It’s important that people understand their bodies are systems rather than compartments. But “comorbid”? It’s not a good media story, not a good social media campaign, and it’s not going to get anyone’s attention.
But the idea – that it’s all connected, that one illness begets another, is worth considering. The term “diabesity” communicates comorbidity in a way people understand. I don’t have to explain much about diabesity because it’s there in the name, and that’s the beauty of it. We need to use or invent the language that achieves this.
In addition, we need to focus on behaviors. The book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard outlines strategies to change behavior, and points out that they are often environmentally driven habits, rather than hardwired people problems. For example, if we would reduce our milk-drinking or switch to skim, most of us would no longer surpass the recommended daily intake of saturated fats. To successfully change habits, a West Virginia public health campaign didn’t ask that we “think about our health” or more specifically “lose wait” or even more specifically “come to a seminar.” Instead, the campaign gave exact direction: When you go to the grocery store, choose the milk with the yellow cap instead of the green one.
How does a brand employ specifics? Kellogg’s Special K Challenge makes the rules clear. Replace two meals a day with a Special K meal, treat yourself to two Special K snacks, and have one meal of your choice. Eat fruits and veggies anytime. For consumers, these rules make the goal “lose weight” into something they can abide by.
As marketers, we need to communicate about health warning signs and wake up calls in digestable terms, and once we have created understanding, we need to tell people exactly what they can do next. We’re in the position to make the ask. Let’s simplify our messages to help people bring healthy lifestyles home.