As they take responsibility for public health, can councils use popular culture to get the healthy message across?
“We are enemy of the people. The problem is that we come across as spoilsports, telling people to stop doing things,” said Fiona Adshead, deputy chief medical officer back in 2006. “We need to make health sound exciting.” Her point is just as true today – indeed perhaps more so, as public health becomes political.
Fortunately many councils already have the tools they need to make health sound exciting or interesting, and in doing so keep voters onside. Councils have departments dedicated to leisure and cultural services; this NHS, of course, never did. By moving public health to local authorities, the opportunity exists for the two to work together. If this can be done in a systematic way, even better.
For many years Experian has produced market research for the public sector. The company divides up the population of the UK into more than 60 subgroups. Each group has its own written description of the lifestyles and values of its members.
The research gives a statistical breakdown of each group’s health status and the hobbies they are interested in. Depending on how much you spend on this reseach, it can also tell you by postcode – or actual address – where the members of these subgroups live.
Most councils already have access to the findings of market research like this. New public health teams must now mine this information methodically to find out how they can engage local groups with messages about health but through their own personal interests.
This work is particularly important with groups that would not consider themselves interested in health. They are unlikely to pick up a leaflet, but they may well go to a free music event on their doorstep. Why not have ensure that the band include some songs about positive mental health? A friendly professional health worker could circulate, and answer any follow up questions.
Similarly, why not include health messages and behaviours in free romantic novels distributed for free at local supermarkets or libraries. Or councils could produce a crossword magazine where many of the puzzles cover health themes.
These are some simple ideas that would be easy for local government to adopt, but good data on local residents and their interests will help public health staff take important decisions about where – and how – to take the message to the community.
Five tips for talking about public health
• Be systematic in finding out what interests different parts of your local population
• Always consider this information when wanting to reach them on health or other topics
• Combine it with information into their beliefs about health
• Carry out research into how to use their interests to get the outcome you want. This should include both public health theory and, where necessary, a better understanding of the interset itself, such as how to write a successful romantic novel
• For more information visit sexanddrugsandrockandhealth.com which also covers ideas about how to use comedy, fashion, comics, football and computer games to get the public health message to the people
Mark Burns is a consultant on using popular culture as an engagement tool. He has worked in health promotion and public health in the north east of England for over two decades
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