This April marks among other things Stress Awareness Month and Parkinson’s Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness and educate people about health issues to empower them towards better engagement and healthier living. There are hundreds of these worldwide every year and momentum around these, often driven by health system stakeholders and brands, does not look like waning. But do they actually work?
There is hope that these Awareness Days, Weeks and Months can help empower patient to become active participants in their care so they can be engaged, more confident and informed and mitigate the tendency to outsource their health to loved ones, caregivers or doctors. However, the goal is about more than just patients.
These Awareness initiatives are also about stakeholders across health systems, designed to positively affect culture, practice, connectedness and strength of outcomes within the different stages of the modern healthcare ecosystem – even those that do not appear to have proximity to patients within earlier stages of development. Healthcare professionals, policymakers and other stakeholders within the health system all have roles to play within the patient journey and health innovation system that supports care, research and treatment.
However, patient- and stakeholder-engagement can be misunderstood as being a natural consequence of campaigns that are designed to drive awareness of conditions. Unfortunately, awareness alone does not necessarily lead to engagement and engagement does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. We need to learn more about the ways that patient engagement is supported, how it should best take form and how effective it can be.
When looking at effectiveness, is the key measure awareness or actual engagement or outcomes? Often, there is an assumption amongst marketers and strategists that heightened awareness naturally leads to greater engagement and better outcomes but this is not necessarily so.
In a 2020 Journal of Epidemiology & Global Health study by Lippi, Mattiuzzi & Cervellin, entitled Do “Disease Awareness Days” Work? A 5-Year Investigation Using Google Trends, the findings suggested the success of these is “variably heterogeneous.” Whilst searches for some conditions like diabetes and thrombosis increased by 21% and 9%, respectively, during the respective disease awareness day for a range of other conditions, those for the other diseases remained virtually unchanged or only modestly increased in the week corresponding to the disease awareness day.
These findings suggest additional efforts should be made for increasing the pervasiveness of disease awareness days and engagement levels relating to them among the general population.
Moreover, a later study by Vernon, Gottesman & Warren in 2021, entitled The value of health awareness days, weeks and months: A systematic review, found that although online activity outcomes were, with only a few exceptions, positively impacted by awareness days/weeks/months, the relationship between increased online activity and health outcomes was consistently unclear. Whilst knowledge-related outcomes were generally improved, it is uncertain how these related to engagement and health outcomes.
This suggests that there should perhaps be a greater focus upon specific types of communications designed to promote engagement and outcomes for disease awareness days as opposed to the conventional awareness driving content and campaigns.
"When you think about awareness days and start to look at them, you see there's next to no evidence on their impact," lead researcher John W. Ayers, research professor at the San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health, told CBS News. "We have no idea if they're working."
Whilst reliable data relating to the effectiveness of communications to drive awareness, engagement and better health outcomes is sparse, there is an increasing body of research to help support the assertion that content and other communications geared towards engagement can drive engagement which arguably might lead to a higher likelihood of better outcomes than heightened awareness alone.
In 2022, following broadcast of FIXING US on NBC, pre- and post-wave research by Momentive Audience Panel/CensUS Balanced found that the content - designed to drive relatability and engagement amongst people based upon authentic patient journeys featuring a selection range of metabolic, cardiovascular and hormonal conditions - actually increased both awareness and engagement.
The research helped demonstrate that dual goals relating to the heightening of awareness and multiple engagement themes could be achieved (although no research was conducted relating to health outcomes data over time). Whilst increasing awareness by 37%, from 38% to 52%, the content also resulted in 72% of viewers claiming they would be “very likely” to research or seek out more information as a result.
There are many areas that need further research (and gaps in knowledge that need to be filled) to help healthcare providers and their systems understand how activity around disease awareness days can actually go beyond heightening awareness. Awareness is an important goal, and indeed is mentioned as the primary focus of “awareness” days but, moving forward, isn’t it time for us to review and elevate our expectations relating to these important days, weeks or months?
We are finding new ways to understand how awareness does, and does not, lead to engagement and how engagement leads to better outcomes. We are committed to learning and sharing what we learn. If you want to understand how you can make your communications more engaging and more likely to lead to better outcomes, or if you want be part of the movement to achieve these insights and elevate the effectiveness of awareness days, weeks and months for all health arenas, please let us know.