By ideas42

We are now over 900 days into the global pandemic that is COVID-19. Meanwhile, there has been hope for many with the introduction of vaccines and boosters; reintegration into society via hybrid working arrangements; and the resumption of sporting events, concerts, and international travel. A semblance of normal life has returned for most, yet we’re still left questioning what’s to come, what to do next, and what to believe. 

In light of the American public’s reaction to the original pandemic response, health experts in the United States (and globally) are beginning to explore new approaches to address current and future major health crises. This post aims to reflect on the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) newly announced Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (CFA), in addition to sharing several suggestions informed by behavioral science, focused on better communication strategies for future disease outbreaks. 

The CDC officially launched the Center for Forecasting and Outbreaks Analytics (CFA) in April 2022. The overall goal of the CFA will be to “enable timely and effective decision-making to improve outbreak response using data, modeling, and analytics.” The new center will be led by experts in information and data analytics, disease modeling, and communication specialists. Their responsibilities include sharing access to and use of data for public health decision makers on the front lines of mitigating high-risk health concerns.

Amidst the many challenges (and several success stories) Americans experienced following their government’s original pandemic response, one thing is certain: the shortcomings were compounded by a lack of public data, which led to many health experts and government officials making moves without clear information or guidelines.

Having data collection processes at the onset of COVID-19 was important for a number of reasons. It could have helped people understand the impending impact of COVID-19 more clearly, and also inform a more appropriate response to the planning and allocation of resources for those in need. Even so, it’s evident the U.S. bungled the initial response around combating misinformation about how the disease is spread, social distancing, mask wearing mandates, coronavirus testing and contact tracing, and eventual vaccine hesitancy and booster uptake

The fact that initial decisions were made without previously established public health data collection systems likely accelerated the rate of disease spread and preventable deaths. However, now that we have collected, monitored and evaluated data over the past two and a half years, we have evidence that large pandemics are more likely than we may have previously considered. Thus, it’s important to recognize that public health decision making and messaging will be further strengthened by the support of data that is detailed and generated in real time for emerging disease outbreaks. 

This global health crisis has required large-scale behavior change, which means messaging around health recommendations needs to be nuanced. Effective communication is essential to the success of monitoring and evaluation during and after the implementation of any program. Insights from behavioral science can be used, with the support of public health experts, to help inform strategies around delivery of particular recommendations that will require changes in human behavior.

Communication competency refers to the effective expression of ideas using oral, written, visual, and non-verbal communication methods, as well as the listening skills to gain deeper understanding and recalibrate communication as needed. As previously mentioned, having the right data and information isn’t enough to get people to act (or change their actions). Practicing communication competency requires differentiating between various forms of communication behavior that is appropriate and effective for a given situation. Thus, effective communication provides added value in areas of demonstrating understanding, preventing conflict or confusion, improving engagement, and solving difficult problems.

The following are several behaviorally informed approaches, that take all of the above into account, for consideration when developing new messaging strategies in response to future public health crises.

Key Recommendation 1: Authenticity

Authenticity and transparency go hand-in-hand when it comes to communication competency. Perceptions of authenticity can affect the way we form judgments or how we might make decisions around certain actions and behaviors. Although there are many dimensions to authenticity – in this context, the way a message is perceived as authentic or inauthentic comes down to whether it is delivered in ways that resonate with and matter to the audience. If the messenger, whether a leader, media source, or public health agency, comes across as genuine, the audience is more likely to trust the message.  

Authenticity: When developing authentic communication and messaging, we suggest utilizing the 4C view of authenticity (consistency, conformity, connection, and continuity). Examples of the 4C view of authenticy in application at the individual level are included in the link for reference.

Key Recommendation 2: Transparency

Transparency, on the other hand, refers to a messenger’s capacity to share important information with all stakeholders so they can make timely and informed decisions. However, no matter how hard we try to be accurate and authentic with content and delivery of our messages, we may encounter challenges due to the spread of misinformation. Countering misinformation and potential data errors with transparency fosters opportunities for rebuilding the public’s trust and confidence after trust has been breached.

Transparency: As opposed to being hesitant about communicating difficult concepts or strategies with the general public, we suggest that healthcare experts be clear about the uncertainties while acknowledging that scientific advice is subject to change with emerging evidence. 

Key Recommendation 3: Empathy

Lastly, having an empathetic approach has profound implications for understanding the unique realities of lived experiences, motivators and/or stressors of populations from a diverse array of cultures and other identities during difficult times like a global pandemic. Empathy is the complex capability of individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others, resulting in compassionate behavior. Empathy requires cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and moral capacities to understand and respond to the suffering of others. Thus, demonstrating empathy and trustworthiness in  communication has potential to yield behavioral outcomes favorable to all regardless of race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or national origin. Moreover, we must be aware of and make sincere attempts to simultaneously lead with humanity and empathy while leaning on the data and measurable statistics when designing and iterating on future communication strategies touching on serious  healthcare topics that impact humans worldwide. 

Empathy: In the process of communicating difficult challenges or positive successes, communicating with empathy means prioritizing people and their well-being, while also making decisions that are in the public’s best interest. Additional examples of expressing empathetic communication include: actively listening, acknowledging people’s doubts and fears, offering flexibility for varying perspectives, seeking out opportunities to learn and grow, and lastly, choosing the appropriate medium to disseminate information. 

While the United States’ dismal pandemic response has made it clear that new systems and approaches to combat future health crises will be necessary in order to repeat such a devastating outcome, we are optimistic that shifts toward applying such behaviorally informed recommendations as these will yield better results when developing messaging for future public health emergencies. 

Interested in learning more about implementing a behaviorally informed communications strategy in your public health work? Email us at ushealth@ideas42.org.

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