Health messaging to encourage key protective behaviours to reduce the spread of Covid-19: What we can learn from existing evidence about getting the message right?
By Nathan Davies, on 7 May 2021
In this months post Dr Sadie Lawes-Wickwar, a Health Psychologist and Lecturer in the department teamed up with other health researchers, health psychologists, public health practitioners, and public contributors across the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic to find out what we can learn about getting the message right to support the public to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
In the event of an outbreak of an infectious disease, the population is required to make often rapid changes to their behaviour to reduce the spread. Public health campaigns can support population-level behaviour change, but it is crucial that the public receives consistent, clear information, so they understand what it is they need to do new (e.g. when using fa
ce coverings). However, public information during a pandemic can be conflicting, change frequently, or use language that the general population may find it hard to understand. We need to think
carefully about the messages that are used to instruct the public to perform behaviours that are key to reducing the spread of a virus.
After the outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK last year, a collaborative group of health psychologists, behavioural scientists, public health practitioners, and members of the public formed the Health Psychology Exchange to support the public health response to the pandemic. A group of Health Psychology Exchange members set about reviewing existing evidence to inform recommendations for local and national public health teams in developing health campaigns. Our aim was to identify what characterises effective public health messages for managing risk and preventing infectious disease, and what influences people’s responses to such messages.
Our first review of public health messaging found that, to influence behaviour effectively at the population level, messages need to be acceptable to the populations they are targeting, be delivered by credible and trustworthy sources, and in language target populations can understand, to increase understanding and threat perceptions . Specifically, in the context of encouraging vaccine uptake, evidence tells us that providing information about virus risks, vaccination safety, vaccine clinics, and addressing misunderstandings about vaccines, can support uptake at hospitals (e.g. among hospital staff) or within local communities. We can also support understanding and beliefs about vaccines by framing messages in a particular way, such as emphasising the reduction of risks and the benefits to society from being vaccinated .
Our work has highlighted gaps in research and the development of previous public health messages, including the valuable input of the public in the design, delivery, dissemination and evaluation of health messages . One of our key recommendations has been the involvement of local communities in all aspects of the messaging process, which is also in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO). We also need more high-quality research to demonstrate the effects of messaging interventions on the uptake of recommended behaviours. Surprisingly few studies to date have evaluated messages adequately to be able to conclude the definitive impact of campaigns on population-level behaviour, such as vaccine uptake.
Our recommendations have informed two British Psychological Society (BPS) Behavioural Science Disease Prevention Taskforce guidance documents to date, one to support public health teams to deliver effective public health campaigns, and another to optimise vaccination uptake during Covid-19. Using behavioural science can boost public health campaigns during the Covid-19 pandemic, and I hope to see more collaborations between health psychologists and public health teams in the coming months as we look to a brighter future.
- Ghio, D., et al., What Influences People’s Responses To Public Health Messages For Managing Risks And Preventing Disease During Public Health Crises? A Rapid Review Of The Evidence And Recommendations. PsyArXiv Preprints, 2020.
- Lawes-Wickwar, S., et al., A rapid systematic review of public responses to health messages encouraging vaccination against infectious diseases in a pandemic or epidemic. Vaccines, 2021. 9(2): p. 72.
- WHO, Communicating risk in public health emergencies: a WHO guideline for emergency risk communication (ERC) policy and practice. 2017: World Health Organization.