People of SU / Research / Science / Technology and Health

Are Health Awareness Campaigns Effective? New Study Finds Mixed Results

December 9, 2020

Despite their ubiquity, the efficacy of health awareness events remains unclear, according to a new study co-authored by a Seattle University economics professor.

The popularity of health awareness campaigns appears to suggest their influence in helping combat serious health issues. Initiating such campaigns can be relatively simple and provide a tangible, approachable way to spread information about ailments. This year, there will be more than 300 health awareness campaigns worldwide.

Despite their ubiquity, the efficacy of health awareness events remains unclear. While several campaigns have been shown to increase online discussion and knowledge about a disease, very few are directly connected to positive health outcomes for those afflicted. In addition, research suggests that even successful campaigns for less widespread diseases may distort public perception of their importance.

In light of the continued growth in awareness campaigns, the authors of the first systematic review of all quantitative academic research in this area to date focus on cost and evidence-based effectiveness of such health awareness initiatives.

“Our findings suggest that awareness programs that target specific populations as opposed to the general population are more successful in improving knowledge and health outcomes,” says corresponding author Erin Vernon, PhD, assistant professor of economics in the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University. “For example, health awareness days, weeks and months that gear their information toward medical students, health care workers and/or higher risk populations report more success. Future research should examine this notion.”

The authors also uncovered a trend in academic literature that suggests health awareness efforts are a solution to alleviate a myriad of public health issues.

“We advise using caution in making this recommendation unless there exists evidence-based research related to awareness campaigns and that specific issue.”

The study, “The value of health awareness days, weeks and months: A systematic review,” appears online in the journal Social Science and Medicine. The other co-authors are Zachary Gottesman (Dartmouth College) and Raechel Warren, '19.

 Among the study’s findings:

The majority of health awareness campaign research focuses on online activity. For the past decade the bulk of research in this area has focused on whether health awareness days, weeks and months increase online activity outcomes, such as increased Google search activity and/or related Twitter posts. With very few exceptions, these campaigns do increase online activity.

The relationship between online activity and health outcomes is not often reported. Few studies examined the relationship between increased online activity and potential public health improvements. For those that did examine the relationship, the results were highly inconclusive. For example, one Twitter study found an increase in posts of dubious content while other studies often did not find strong correlations between online activity increases and improved health knowledge or behaviors.

Health awareness campaign research rarely examines costs/cost-effectiveness. Few research articles included the costs invested into the campaigns as an input measure even though this is most likely a strong contributor to the success of a specific campaign.

The authors suggest that future research no longer focus on general online activity as a final outcome measure because the tie between this and improved public health outcomes has not been established. Instead, outcome measures should relate to improvements in health knowledge and/or outcomes.

Future research should also include costs as a way to further understand why some campaigns may have a stronger impact on health outcomes related to others, the authors say. Further, cost inclusion could help determine the effectiveness of such programs related to other potential uses of scarce resources in achieving the same goals.