Developing and managing successful public health activities require the ability to communicate effectively with the varieties of stakeholders involved in these efforts. Increasingly, public health organizations rely on explicit communication strategies to manage relationship with the media, policy makers, and the public. Key channels of communication include press releases, news conferences, radio, cable and satellite television, pamphlets, posters, videotaped messages and town meetings.
Media relationships can be especially helpful in mounting population wide health promotion and disease prevention interventions. External communication strategies should be coordinated with internal communication processes to ensure organization performance. Robert Frost once wryly noted that “good fences make good neighbours. ” Nothing could be further from the truth in the effective practice of public health. Effective communication is in fact vital to the ability to improve the quality and quantity of life locally, nationally, and globally.
And though the science of public health has continued to advance, the concomitant ability to communicate result and accomplishments has lagged behind. This one reason why public health practice—for all its success in improving life expectancy over the past 100 years—continues to toil in relative obscurity compared with organized medical practice. As result, population based approaches to health improvement continue to suffer from poor funding and limited advocacy. It has been estimated that health promotion and disease prevention expenditures constitute 3 percent of health care expenditures.
An added difficulty is the fact that public health activities such as the prevention of epidemics, assurance of safe water and food, and maintenance of health statistics are largely transparent to the general public and, consequently, undervalued. Thus, although former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s well known comment, “health care is vital to all of us some of the time, but public health is vital to all of us all of the time,” resonates with public health professionals, it often fall on deaf ears when aimed at the public, the media, the policy makers.
Fortunately, the realization that “good communication equals good public health” is growing. Three decades ago, public health communication was generally limited to sterile brochures, pamphlets, and early morning public service announcements (PSAs). Modern public health organizations use social marketing and entertainment education techniques to encourage lifestyle changes, media advocacy to transform health policy making, and risk communication to better characterize health risks.
Public health administrators are also becoming increasingly aware that organizational efficiency and employee morale are dependent on effective organizational communication. Nonetheless, the effective use of communication to improve public health practices is still the exception rather than the rule. Public health administrators continue to on the job about communication strategies and do admirably well under many circumstances. However given the importance of communication in public health, these strategies should not be left to chance.
Academic institutions and continuing education programs need to offer pragmatic training in effective communication strategies to improve public health practice (Novick, 2005).
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