Why a Blanket Macro Approach to Health Communication Won’t Cut it Anymore!

Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a number of health inequalities, particularly when it comes to ethnic minority groups.

The Office for National Statistics reports that before the vaccine rollout, men and women of black ethnicity were more than four times likely to die from COVID-19 compared to people of white ethnicity. The Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre data also shows that 34% of COVID-19-related admissions to intensive care are for ethnic minority people, when they only account for 13% of the population of England and Wales.

From my perspective as a former journalist and now communication scholar, the pandemic has also revealed the weaknesses of current approaches to public health communication. This observation was confirmed during a knowledge exchange event organized by ISR on 3 June 2021 entitled ‘Communicating Health Messages and Risks to Minority Groups in the Wirral’.

The Wirral Peninsula has a rapidly growing and increasingly ethnically diverse population, now reaching just under 10%. However, work with our partner organization Wirral Change, which is a Black and Racial Minorities Outreach Service, has unmasked how little attention has been paid to the role ethnicity and marginalisation play in access to healthcare, trust in public communication and health outcomes.

As Clint Agard, Wirral Change CEO, pointed out during our knowledge exchange event, government health communication rarely considers local diversity, leaving organizations like Wirral Change to shoulder the burden of health information and work within communities.

Edna Boampong, Director of Communications and Engagement Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin CCG & Integrated Care System, qualified this problem further during her contribution to our knowledge exchange event. Before taking up her current role, Edna Boampong held for 18 months the position of Interim Director of Communications for the Cheshire and Merseyside Health and Care Partnership, the second largest ICS in the country. As part of her responsibilities in this role, she curated ‘Getting under the skin: The impact of COVID-19 on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities’ by the Cheshire and Merseyside Health & Care Partnership. This revealed lack of trust in government authorities, poor understanding of key messages, such as the level of immunity after vaccination, substantial vaccine hesitancy and a major diminishing of access to healthcare for the BAME community.

So, what can we do? With the macro approach failing it is time to adopt a more grassroots, spread out networked approach that delivers more targeted, culturally specific, communication. We need to identify and work with communication brokers within each community, not forgetting that these brokers are not just the business or religious leaders, but also women of different age groups and young influencers. We need to do more work at community events. We need to capitalize on the diversity of NHS health workers and train GPs in community specific health challenges and diversity. We need to research and dismantle emotional barriers to achieve more effective health communication. Translating jargon heavy health leaflets into foreign languages simply won’t cut it anymore.

Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu is Reader in Communication at Edge Hill University.

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