Effective health communication in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic

Published on May 13 2020 – There are many uncertainties in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, but health  communication is a key factor in fighting this crisis. An international team of health communication and behavioral scientists provides advice on how to communicate effectively and promote behavioral change and maintanance. The advice of UvA communication scientists Julia van Weert and Robin Tschötschel and international colleagues was published as an editorial in the May issue of Patient Education & Counseling.

Effective communication

Uncertainty about Covid-19 and its spread is an obvious challenge for health communicators who need to provide information about this. The way from uncertainty to panic or not following advice can be short. Van Weert and colleagues highlight four elements that play an important role in communicating effectively to the public:

  1. Be open and honest about what is known and what is unknown and stick to the facts as much as possible, although these facts are constantly evolving as we learn by doing. Because things change quickly, it’s important to acknowledge the temporality of ‘facts’ and to be clear that when recommendations change, this is based on new, previously unknown, evidence.
  2. Keep information consistent and specific. Even if we acknowledge that there is much we don’t know, it is important not to get stuck in vagueness. Beyond keeping the message consistent and specific, also keep the number of spokespersons consistent and limited.
  3. Demonstrate the ability to make decisions in this situation characterized by uncertainty, with confidence and honesty.
  4. Acknowledge emotions and be empathetic by showing concern and the impact on personal lives and not by being aloof or too factual.

Promote behavioral change

However, knowing is not the same as doing. This gap between intention and behavior has been well-documented. Van Weert and colleagues therefore also give four recommendations with regard to behavioral change:

  1. Create a mental model about how contamination works and how it can be prevented. The better inner picture you have of how the virus is spreading, the better you understand and remember how its route to transmission may be blocked and what behaviors can help prevent infection.
  2. Behavioral change requires not only verbal recommendations, but also actual interventions in the environment that facilitate the new behavior and even legislation. It is also important not only to say “Don’t”, but rather to suggest alternative behavior and make the behavior easy, for instance by building it into existing routines. Demonstrations on TV by role models of an easy, alternative behavior, for instance for shaking hands, will increase self-efficacy, which is an important determinant of behavior.
  3. We as citizens are now more isolated than ever, and an appeal to collective action and a “we-are-in-it-together-in” mindset is therefore very important.
  4. Maintaining long-term behavioral change — including washing hands, keeping social distance, sneezing into your elbow, and not touching your face — is essential the longer the crisis lasts. To maintain behavior, individuals must be repetitive in performing the desired behaviors and confident in their ability to overcome obstacles.

Van Weert and colleagues conclude that a situation like this requires a broad, interdisciplinary response from the research community and that effective health communication is a key factor in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. As a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the RIVM Corona Behavioral Unit, van Weert also actively contributes to this.

Read the editorial in Patient Education and Counseling here

Finset, A., Bosworth, H., Butow, P., Gulbrandsen, P., Hulsman, R.L., Pieterse, A.H., Streeet, R., Tschoetschel R., & Van Weert, J. (2020). Effective health communication – a key factor in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic [editorial]. Patient Education and Counseling, 103 (5), 873–876. Doi: 10.1016 / j.pec.2020.03.027