Objectives of health communication

In any type of communication, whether you are writing or speaking, trying to persuade, inform or educate, there are several general objectives. These include being understood, being accepted, and influencing an action such as a change of behaviour.

Kidist is a Health Extension Practitioner in the village of Hetosa. She planned to teach her community about environmental sanitation and the benefits of latrine construction. Note down which forms of health communication a Health Extension Practitioner like Kidist might want to use to teach the community about the issue of building and using latrines.

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Kidist is likely to inform, influence and motivate community members through health communication. But ultimately, she wants to achieve an action (change of behaviour). There needs to be action so that the latrines are built and used effectively (Figure 7.2). The members of the community asked various questions on the issue of latrine construction. After some discussion the community accepted Kidist's ideas and agreed to construct the latrine. This is a good example of successful health communication.

A simple latrine made from local materials.

Figure 7.2 Even simple latrines can make a big difference to people's lives. (Photo: WaterAid/Marco Betti)

Health communication contributes to better health outcomes for individuals and for the whole community. It raises awareness of health risks and solutions, and provides the motivation and skills needed to reduce these risks. It can affect or reinforce good health practices and attitudes, giving people the information they need to make complex choices, such as selecting health plans, care providers and treatments. Health communication also encourages social norms that benefit health and improve quality of life.

Health communication is useful in helping individuals to find support from other people in similar situations. Most importantly health communication can increase appropriate demand for and use of health services. For the community, health communication can be used to influence the public agenda, advocate for policies and programmes, and promote positive change. At the same time it can help improve the delivery of public health and healthcare services (Figure 7.3).

A group of young women seated on a bench discuss priorities whilst looking at everyday objects lying on the ground in front of them.

Figure 7.3 A group of young women are using everyday objects to help them discuss priorities. (Photo: Lindsay Stark)

Look at Box 7.2 below and think about two areas where you could use health communication. If you have a chance talk to other health workers, try to find out examples from the list of how and where they have used health communication effectively.

Health communication can be both complex and subtle and different people may focus on different areas. For example one person might generate action through helping people to understand health-related issues, and another by helping them express their needs. Both of these roles will help people to think that bringing about change is a good idea.

Box 7.2 The role of health communication in health education and promotion

  • Increases knowledge and awareness of a health issue, problem, or its solution
  • Influences perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and social norms about health
  • Generates effective action
  • Demonstrates or illustrates health related skills
  • Shows the benefit of behaviour change
  • Increases appropriate use and demand for health services
  • Reinforces knowledge, attitudes and behaviour
  • Refutes myths and misconceptions
  • Advocates for a health issue or a population group.

Read Box 7.3 below, which lists a number of important principles of communication. Some of these are the sorts of things everyone will know and agree with, for example that face-to-face communication is good.

After you have read the box come back to this text and match these examples with the items in Box 7.3.

  1. Combining a leaflet, an audio, a meeting, individual counselling, a demonstration and role playing to get a message across
  2. Talking with someone and asking what they think, rather than talking 'at' them
  3. Using simple straightforward language, rather than very big and hard words or being very 'scientific' and obscure
  4. Having relevant facts and information gathered together in one place before talking to someone
  5. Having all the information that is going to be needed for an encounter so that nothing is missing and everything is tied up
  6. Talking directly to someone if at all possible when communication is required
  7. Making sure as much as possible that both sides in a communication see things in the same way.

Box 7.3 Principles of communication

  1. Shared perception: for communication to be effective the perception of the sender should be as close as possible to the perception of the receiver. The extent of understanding depends on the extent to which the two minds come together.
  2. Sensory involvement: the more senses involved in communication, the more effective it will be. If I hear, I forget. If I see, I remember. If I do, I know.
  3. Face to face: when communication takes place face-to-face it is more effective.
  4. Two-way feedback: any communication without a two-way process is less effective because of lack of opportunity for concurrent, timely and appropriate feedback.
  5. Clarity: ideas, facts and opinions should be clear to the sender before communication happens. Communication should always use direct, simple and easily understandable language.
  6. Correct information: the sender should have at hand correct, current and scientific information before communicating it.
  7. Completeness: subject matter must be adequate and full. This enables the receiver to understand the central theme or idea of a message. Incomplete messages may result in misunderstandings.

The examples (a) to (g) illustrate the following principles of communication from Box 7.3.

  1. illustrates sensory involvement
  2. illustrates two-way feedback
  3. illustrates clarity
  4. illustrates correct information
  5. illustrates complete information
  6. illustrates face-to-face communication
  7. illustrates shared perception.

None of this is difficult or indeed anything that people won't understand. Most people are very good at communication and know what to say when and to whom. However, as a Health Extension Practitioner it is part of your role to be skilled in communication and use it professionally. So be sure to try to analyse what goes on and what works in health education. Although we can all do it, we can all learn to do it better!

Last modified: Saturday, 28 June 2014, 10:15 AM