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NIH Record

Health Communicators Discuss How to Find What Works

By Mimi Lising

Get some exercise! Eat your fruits and vegetables — five a day! Stomp that cigarette! And take your medicine, lower your fat intake, your cholesterol and your blood sugar! Promoting these kinds of messages is the daily business of federal health communicators. What works? What doesn't? And how do we know?

These and other questions brought 169 government health communicators to "So...What Happened? Incorporating Evaluation into Health Communication Programs," the third annual NIH Health Communications Forum. The forum was sponsored by the communications offices of NIDDK, NHLBI, NIDCR, NIAAA, NICHD, and the NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison.

Keynote speaker Dr. Bill Smith, a nationally recognized expert in health communications and social marketing from the Academy for Educational Development, encouraged participants to begin by understanding the needs of their audiences; trying different methods to find out what works; and then using those methods. He added that they should not hesitate to change strategies to meet the needs of their audiences.

Speaking about the "fear and loathing" that many professional communicators feel for the task of evaluating, Elaine Bratic Arkin acknowledged that there is little money to evaluate health education programs; outcomes from other federal programs are often data-based; and health education is hard to quantify. In addition, results from a health education program may take years to surface.

Speakers Elaine Bratic Arkin (l) and Anne Lubenow discuss the forum.

A former PHS deputy assistant secretary for public affairs who is now a popular health communications consultant, Arkin urged the audience not to let apparent barriers stymie them. She suggested myriad ways to evaluate such as using case studies, measuring processes, examining activities rather than the total program, and thinking in terms of changes as well as results.

Breakout sessions in the afternoon included looks at ongoing campaigns such as NIDDK's National Diabetes Education Program and NEI's Eye Health Education Program, as well as ways of assessing the effectiveness of mass media campaigns, media relations and web sites; partnerships with both private and public groups; and tools to measure outcomes of health communications efforts.

Workshop speaker Leslie Hsu of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, DHHS, stressed the need for web site evaluation in discussing her experiences with DHHS's "People initiate web sites so quickly that they may not think of the need to evaluate them." However, Hsu added, the web is "such an important communication tool that evaluation is essential." NCI's Janice Nall shared her institute's recently developed guidelines for web site design and usability based on lessons learned from redesigning the CancerNet web site.

Resources and evaluation materials provided a variety of take-home messages for participants. John Burklow, deputy director of NIH's Office of Communications and Public Liaison, called the forum a "very practical guide...for people at the front lines who are trying to do a lot with limited resources."

A videocast of the forum is available at

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