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What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught us about public health messaging?


I joined The King’s Fund in 2020, coming from an academic background in a university department where I worked on research about how to encourage people to adopt healthy behaviours. With the Covid-19 pandemic in full swing, I saw several familiar faces from academia appearing in national media sharing and explaining public health messages. Academic researchers are rarely so visible, but during the pandemic they were in demand as the public face of the race to minimise the impact of Covid 19.

It made me wonder how academic health researchers could have more direct influence on public health in future.

To find out more I spoke to three academic researchers who have worked on developing public briefings and web-based tools to enable people to understand their risk and protect themselves and others from Covid-19.

They all told me how they had needed to work differently during the pandemic to deliver timely evidence to the right people, at scale. Researchers may know how to design good public health messages but the need for speed and reach, coupled with limited funding resources, have always been and are still hot topics of conversation. They had three insights for how to approach these problems.

Work closely with local authority public health departments

Health researchers are often keen to engage patients and the public in designing or focusing research but mustn’t overlook the public health teams who deliver the final outputs. The pandemic re-emphasised the need to work closely and collaboratively with those whose job it is to deliver public health messages. One academic told me how they and their colleagues had been approached by staff from local authority public health departments, seeking help with public health messaging. They suddenly had a direct line of contact to professionals implementing behaviour change practice. Academic researchers had the chance to hear and respond to their exact needs in real time so that public health departments could develop materials that could change people’s behaviour.

Increase the pace of research by large-scale academic collaboration

The pandemic created a new environment for collaboration. Health researchers came together for a common cause to deliver high-quality outputs with consistent messages for public health teams in a fraction of the time usually taken for research. Academic researchers crowdsourced support from colleagues nationwide as they searched for answers, completing multiple rapid evidence reviews to inform public briefings. This contrasts with the traditionally competitive, and slow pace of academic research, the latter a much-acknowledged challenge for achieving meaningful impact for public health or front line staff.

Identify and invest in diverse implementation and dissemination routes early on

Researchers need to consider how the messages and health tools they develop will reach their target users. The researchers I spoke to said the pandemic had emphasised the potential impact of involving well-placed partners from early stages of research. This means thinking about the press teams, health bodies and credible champions (eg, GPs) who might be able to support and promote the roll-out of messages and tools (eg, apps) as early as possible. For example, I was told how the work of a single champion for a particular digital tool achieved an uptake of approximately 400 new users on a single day. With multiple champions and the right pathway, uptake could grow to hundreds of thousands. Mainstream media can be another good route for dissemination but working in this way is not something that is typically part of a researcher’s skillset. The researchers I spoke to praised their local university press teams for the influence they had on the uptake of their web tools, mentioning significant ‘bumps’ in uptake after media activities.

Building on pandemic learning

The pandemic has exposed and reinforced two core beliefs in behaviour change research. Developing the right or the needed, intervention is important. Ensuring that intervention is taken up is important. Effective interventions can only be effective if they reach their target audiences – think about how population-level changes require small effects across many people – an important factor to consider given the widening health inequalities exposed by the pandemic. As we emerge from the pandemic and look to build back fairer continuing to build these bridges between academics and the frontline health service, as well as other gatekeepers for dissemination, will be key.

Acknowledgements: With thanks to Dr Tracy Epton, University of Manchester and member of the Health Psychology Exchange who helped develop and disseminate Your Covid-19 risk tool and contributed heavily to the British Psychological Society’s public briefings, and Dr Ben Ainsworth, University of Bath, and Dr Sascha Miller, University of Southampton, who helped develop and disseminate Germ defence, for sharing their thoughts and experiences.