Module 5: The Role of Media in Health Promotion

“The media is an important ally in any public health situation. It serves the role of being a source of correct information as well as an advocate for correct health behaviors. But before the media can take on that role, it needs to understand the virus, the issues surrounding it, policy and practices, and finally, recommended correct behaviors.” (1)

The local and international media play a vital role as the link between health workers and the larger public. Health authorities educate and entrust the media with essential health information, which is then relayed to the public in readily accessible formats through a variety of media channels.  For instance, in order to disseminate information about the avian influenza to the wider public, the U.S. Government tasked the Academy for Educational Development with the responsibility of developing a training program to help the local media understand the complexity of this disease so that they would be able to report about it effectively(2)

5.1 Mass Media: Expanding Reach & Health Promotion

The mass media helps health workers expand their audience reach, which is crucial considering the fact that face-to-face channels of communication often require too many human resources and reach only a small number of people in large, underserved rural areas. The mass media provides an important link between the rural residents and vital health information.

The mass media, in the form of the radio and television, are an effective way to persuade target audiences to adopt new behaviors, or to remind them of critical information. Besides informing the public about new diseases and where to seek help, they can also keep the public updated about immunization campaigns. The mass media can “empower rural populations to fight major causes of infant mortality such as diarrheal dehydration and diseases which can be prevented through vaccination, inform large numbers of people of seasonal or daily variations for such activities as an immunization campaign or availability of a new product or service, teach new health skills such as how to mix oral rehydration solution, promote new health behaviors such as taking ivermectin once a year, motivate ad hoc or organized listening groups, and increase community acceptance of health workers.”(3)

Case Study: Messages for a Vaccination Campaign(4)

In order to increase the number of children less than a year old receiving vaccinations in Manila, Philippines, radio and television broadcasts were created because almost everybody utilized one or both media channels. According to a study done later to determine the efficacy of the campaign, using the radio and television “resulted in more children being vaccinated on schedule…These results show that in places where people use mass media regularly and vaccinations are available, effective radio and television spots can increase vaccination rates and extend the reach of health workers.”

5.2 Reaching Out to Rural Communities: Radio Spots(5)

"The backbone of our mass media program is the 45 second promotional spot. Why start with spots? Because they are quick and easy to produce and broadcast. In the same spirit we make low cost tools, such as the gazety, accessible to large numbers of families, we broadcast dozens of spots on over ten fm stations every day, day in and day out. With the spots working for us, we developed short rural radio programs by recording local skits and brief interviews with parents. Powerful synergy between two communication channels is achieved when village skits are broadcasting on local radio stations.”(6)

In places where radios are still popular, they can be used, with great success, as health communication tools. Not only are they cheaper and more readily available in rural areas, their programs can also be adapted to suit local needs in terms of language, culture and values. In Africa, radio spots or advertisements are used to combat malaria.

Case Study: Using Radio for Diarrheal Disease Control in Swaziland(7)

To prevent the deaths of infants and young children from diarrhea, radio broadcasts were used to train health professionals to treat the disease, distribute relevant health materials and set up places where mothers could learn how to prepare medication properly. According to the evaluative study performed later, “given a similar level of staff effort but the far greater coverage achieved by radio, it was found that more than twice the number of mothers learned the correct procedure for mixing SSS (the medication) from the radio than did those who learned it from face-to-face communication.” This provides strong evidence that the radio campaign was a successful health communication strategy. 

5.3 The Internet Revolution

As Internet access continues to expand, it will increasingly serve as a rich health resource in environments that lack health expertise. Regardless of location, the Internet allows people to gain access to a wide array of health-related information from worldwide at a mouse click. The local cyber café may even begin to serve as a health information hub.(8) Since the Internet transcends geographical barriers, there is plenty of potential for websites to provide a valuable source of health information, thus enhancing health and wellbeing for people in developing countries.

However, there is one important caveat. As the amount of information grows at an unprecedented rate, so does the amount of false, and potentially harmful information. Misinformation, either due to inaccurate information, misleading information or misinterpretation of health information, can have potentially dire consequences, triggering mass panics, misleading uninformed policy-makers etc.

“As access increases in the developing world, many health-related crises could parallel social and political movements that have resulted, at least in part, from these technologies (e.g., the use of the Internet by the Falun Gong in China or the role that SMS played in the destabilization of a Philippine government). Hong Kong, for example, narrowly missed mass panic as a result of misinformation being posted to a falsified website concerning SARS. Elsewhere, decisionmakers have been misled by, or chosen to misuse, information found on the Internet (e.g., South African President Mbeki’s stance on HIV/AIDS). For health communication programs, the Internet may become a countervailing factor and an obstacle as a source of misinformation and myth, particularly in the areas of infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS.”(9)

5.4 Printed Media

The distribution of pamphlets and leaflets created by specialized health bodies can disseminate vital health information reliably.

5.5 Choice of Media(10)

The decision to use a particular medium should be based on audience research rather than on assumptions about its utility and audience reach. For instance, certain technologies are not particularly useful when:

Audience research, which reveals the target audience’s preferred media, should inform the choice of media.

Go To Module 6: Health Informatics: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies>>


(1) USAID. (2006). "Avian Influenza: Media Orientation Training Notes." USAID: From the American People.

(2) See, USAID. Avian Influenza: Media Orientation Training Notes. 2006.

(3) Boyd, B. L., & Shaw, W. D. (1995). Unlocking Health Worker Potential: Some Creative Strategies from the Field. Academy for Educational Development, HeathCom Project.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Change Project. (2005). "A Guide to Adapting, Developing and Producing Effective Radio Spots."

(6) Gottert, Peter. "Six Guiding Principles of Streamlining."

(7) Boyd, B. L., & Shaw, W. D. (1995). Unlocking Health Worker Potential: Some Creative Strategies from the Field. Academy for Educational Development, HeathCom Project.

(8) Maxfield, A. (2004). Information and communication technologies for the developing world. Health Communication Insights2009.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Change Project. (2005). "A Guide to Adapting, Developing and Producing Effective Radio Spots."