1096   Individual paper

But does it work? Evaluation, effectiveness and the history of health communication

Author: Elizabeth Toon
University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Health communicators today employ the tools of social science to determine whether their interventions have been successful.  Have their messages reached the right targets and conveyed information appropriately? Has behaviour change occurred, and is that change due to their intervention?  Is behaviour change the only marker of success?  Are changes in knowledge that could someday lead to behaviour change enough to prove a campaign has "worked"?

In this presentation, I draw on historical research to outline how a much earlier generation grappled with many of the same issues.  While they never tried to calculate a "weighted mean effect size" for their mass media campaigns, health communicators from the 1910s through the 1940s sought to prove that their efforts were contributing to "“ and maybe even responsible for "“ improvements in the public's health.  Early practitioners and academics scoured surveys of attitudes and practices, trends in service use, and even vital statistics for evidence that persuasion could change knowledge, attitudes, behaviour, and eventually, health.  Like their descendants today, these experts were often frustrated by what they found: marginal or at least poorly quantified effects, particularly compared to their commercial rivals" ability to sell products and habits.

The ancestors of today's health communicators would soon refine their approaches to both campaigns and evaluation.  By embracing social science over showmanship, selling, and hard-won experience as their central claim to expertise, they hoped to prove themselves legitimate contributors to an increasingly academic public health world.  Even so, they wondered what this trade-off might sacrifice.  Was it enough to have faith that their efforts would someday bear fruit?  Did a campaign have to have proven impact to be worthwhile?  And what we can learn from their efforts to balance science with enthusiasm, theory with practice, and academic concerns with practical accomplishments?

 

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