Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identified chronic disease as the “public health challenge of the 21st century.” Chronic conditions are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S. and more than 75% of U.S. health care spending is on people with these conditions. However, chronic diseases are also among the most preventable health problems. Furthermore, evidence indicates that people can and will take charge of their health if given the necessary education and support to do so. The question then is what kind of messages will generate the most change. As part of a chronic disease prevention campaign, this research sought to understand audience needs and inform message strategy.
Methods: Focus groups (n=32) and a survey (n=600) were conducted with D.C. residents to examine knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to disease states (e.g., diabetes) and preventative measures. The survey established a baseline for the campaign evaluation (ongoing), and was leveraged in a formative capacity through a technique known as belief analysis (the focus here). Belief items concerning getting regular health screenings were analyzed in relation to intentions to pursue those screening in the next year. Content of the discussion guide and survey was theoretically-driven.
Results: Focus group findings provided insight into knowledge gaps, benefits, and barriers that were substantiated quantitatively through the survey. Based on the three belief analysis criteria, the most promising beliefs to target in communication efforts were that (A) “most people I know get regular physicals or health screenings,” (B) “I have time to go see a health care provider for regular check-ups,” and (C) “If I know my personal health risks, it will empower me to take action.” Those who reported strong normative influences or who felt empowered by knowledge of their personal health risks were two times more likely to strongly intend to pursue three preventative screenings in the next year. Further, those who perceived they had time for regular check-ups were three times more likely to intend to engage in the targeted screening behaviors. In all cases, a sizeable number of people did not currently endorse these beliefs (i.e., there is room to change their minds).
Conclusions: This data provides evidence that specific beliefs could be fruitful foundations for campaign messages – and that a systematic approach to identifying such beliefs is not only feasible but beneficial in an applied setting. Those who believed they had time for regular check-ups, who perceived that most people they know get regular physicals and screenings, and who felt empowered to act when they knew their risks were two to three times more likely to intend to seek three key preventative screenings in the next year.
Implications for research and/or practice: Campaign evaluation and data-driven decisions regarding message strategy are essential to maximizing advertising as a tool for promoting positive health behavior changes. This research provides (a) insight into drivers of behavior related to chronic disease prevention and (b) strategies for practical application of theory and data in campaign development.