Health Literacy is About Much More than Google

The United States doesn’t rank very well when it comes to health literacy. What can we do to change that? A recent paper, published by a team led by a researcher from the University of Michigan, investigated this.

According to the research, health literacy isn’t necessarily improved by having more access to information (online for example), it comes from having  face-to-face relationships and connections with other people and communities. The study sites activities like volunteering, voting, and having access to a library as being associated with higher health literacy.

This presents an interesting challenge for social marketers, as it suggests we have to do more than just deliver people information. We need to improve their relationships and the social structures around them, and still be able to provide needed health information within that framework.

The lead study author acknowledges that health communications can and should be a part of this. According to the article:

“‘One of the lessons from this is we have to do a better job with health communication,’ Rikard said. ‘We have to put it in a social context, knowing where people live and how they communicate with one another.'”

What kinds of social marketing campaigns should come out of information like this?

I think that there are two takeaways. One relates to the types of campaigns done, and the other relates to how campaigns are carried out.

Regarding types of campaigns, I think that social marketers can’t just focus only on promoting a certain health-specific outcome. To really have success we should consider focusing on the other social aspects that we potentially have the power to change: encouraging the development of community groups, making libraries and recreation centers safe and accessible, creating volunteer opportunities that are culturally relevant and accessible to all sorts of groups, offering assistance to people living in isolation, and focusing and promoting these efforts in areas of the most need.

Regarding how campaigns are carried out (especially when they are in relation to just health outcomes) I think, as the quote from the article says, we need to focus on understanding where social relationships are happening in different communities. For example, is there are strong church community, a strong school community, a community center, or some other location where people tend to gather and that is trusted and respected? If so, communications should focus on integrating this into campaigns. Could health checks happen at a school, literature be distributed at a church, free health classes take place at a community center, and so on? The “place” potential is great and, like the article said, understanding how people are communicating with each other in the real world can greatly improve the success of health literacy campaigns.


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