Although social media is all around us, there is a tendency to forget that it is still new and, in the case of public health, very new. What would / did our health communications system look like if it was designed for pamphlets instead of apps, door-to-door visits instead of Facebook, and libraries instead of websites?
I was at a meeting today and caught the phrase “health communication in the age of pamphlets” as a frank, but concerning assessment of how much we rely on models of communication that emphasize written text, paper-based materials, professionals handing them out or information racks as the distribution channel, and authority and fear as the driver.
If we designed our communications systems for pamphlets, we might have a system that looks like this:
1. Public health officials (mostly physicians) would tell the public what was good for them, how to act in case of emergencies, and they would be doing it with confidence.
2. That confidence would come from experience and some evidence and both of those would have largely complete information, or at least good enough information.
3. Messages would be crafted using mostly text in language (almost exclusively English, except maybe French in some cases here in Canada) that was authoritative and technical.
4. Information could be easily found in doctors offices and some public libraries (you wouldn’t want to put too much information in the library because there are no health professionals there).
5. The conditions that caused illness were straightforward, could be diagnosed and treated and that the reasons people got sick in the first place was that they were largely not taking care of themselves.
It seems to me that this system isn’t that different than what we have now.
The only difference is that people have options and that is what they are seeking. They are also seeking relationships,
…are recognizing that illness is caused by social as well as other determinants,
…that their peers and lay helpers have a lot to offer,
…that professionals’ knowledge is limited, but that they are still very important for specific things,
…that they would rather be in partnership with health professionals than not
…there are limits to what we know and that being an informed consumer is an important skill in the world these days
… that there are as many questions as answers.
Information technology, networks, and a newfound sense of empowerment is changing a lot and maybe soon it will change public health communications.