Communications Is Vital To Health, So Let’s Align On How We Talk About It

Generations ago, knowledge about how to protect health, detect disease, slow progression, and cure anything was limited. The communications priorities were for doctors to break the bad news gently and for loved ones to be supportive. Today, with so much more that can be done at every phase, communications can provide insight, drive conversation, inspire thinking, and spark action that protects, improves and extends life.

But it’s clear we often don’t share a common understanding of what important terms mean. Long-held definitions have become obsolete, others inaccurate, and many just too narrow.

And in this era where digital, technological and scientific advances have made us hyper-connected and interdependent, speaking the same health language has become nothing short of vital.

When Tom Jones and I started collaborating a few months ago, we had an up close and personal experience of the vagaries of definitions. One of us (Tom) was steeped in the latest thinking in the communications and pharmaceutical industries, while the other (Nancy) had devoted work over the past five years to universities, think tanks, providers, and global health and development organizations.

Coming from different places but aligned in the conviction that health communications is core to enterprise success and human well-being and sustainability, we set out to establish a shared language, to:

  • Facilitate the trans-stakeholder, -industry, and generational collaboration essential to maximizing health and minimizing the trade-off between progress and affordability.
  • Create awareness of the health impact and opportunities of our choices.
  • Spark fresh thinking and action for personal, professional, and public health and well-being.

With a long list of health-critical terms crying out for definition, we got started with our top-10:

1. Health is not a just a set of biometrics to be concerned about at the onset of disease or old age.
Health is the essence of life, to be nurtured, appreciated and managed across the life-course. It’s the ever-changing condition of one’s physical, emotional and social well-being.

2. Healthy is not about being free of disease and unencumbered by disability.
Healthy is living as fully as possible – maximizing one’s life quality and productivity. An individual who plays with gusto in a wheelchair basketball league may be healthier than someone with Schwarzenegger-class quads.

3. Healthcare is not only practiced by clinical professionals.
Healthcare is also practiced by coaches, advocates, caregivers, and oneself. It’s care that protects and promotes health, that prevents or slows the progression of disease, that involves physiological, psychological and social education, support and interventions.

4. A health influencer is not only someone who’s made a career of changing attitudes and actions.
Everyone is a health influencer. Consciously or not, we influence the health habits of others: How might my avoidance of diabetes management tacitly give others permission to ignore their glucose levels? How might I help an ailing friend by sharing the story of my similar struggle?

5. A health leader is not only an eminent medical or public health professional.
Every leader is a health leader by dint of the disproportionate influence that their comments and decisions have on others. These “super-influencers” include the renowned architect who designs inviting central staircases in his office buildings, the mayor who paves the way for citizens to bike to work, and the executive who discusses biomedical research support with colleagues and friends on the golf course.

6. Policy is not something that is set by government alone.
Policy is set in all institutions, big and small. Think parental rules, cultural conventions, school traditions, university guidelines, corporate policies… even friend-group norms. Every institution with rules – formal or not – sets policy and is empowered to upgrade it.

7. Government health policy affecting health is not just about healthcare.
Government policy affecting health can be about healthcare, science, environment, education, citizen rights, or safety. As Robert Madelin, Director General for Health and Consumer Protection to the European Commission, said, “Government must have health in all policies.”

8. Public health is not just about healthcare for low-income people.
Public health is population-level science and real-world interventions to improve the conditions in which the world’s people live. Dean Linda Fried’s mission at Columbia University’s Mailman School is to enable health for all.

9. Healthcare companies do not make and market only health products and services.
Healthcare companies make and market health products, services and programs. Part and parcel of their operating models is educating healthcare professionals, patients, families, and the public-at-large in their communities, markets and the developing world, often with partners in the provider, public and not-for-profit sectors,

10. Communicable diseases are not caused only by bacteria and viruses.
Communicable diseases are also caused by individual biology, social influences and environmental conditions – and in many cases, a combination of these. Global warming has exacerbated the malaria epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Closer to home, the high prevalence of asthma and allergies in children in certain NYC neighborhoods maps to homes with cockroach infestation.

As the healthcare professionals who specialize in communications, let’s lead the conversation around updating and aligning the language of health.

Tom and I look forward to your thoughts as we head to the ExL Pharma Public Relations & Communications Summit, where our colleague Valerie Delva will lead a session titled, “Credibility and Authenticity in Today’s Influencer and Gatekeeper Environment.”