Public health marketing professionals have faced unprecedented and unpredictable communication challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A key factor, and likely a long-term challenge, is health message fatigue.
Indeed, a growing body of research shows that message fatigue occurs when people are repeatedly exposed to messages about the same preventive health behaviors—for example, those related to smoking and obesity—resulting in avoidance and inaction. Research is now showing the same kind of fatigue related to messages about COVID-19.
The Barriers to Following Preventive Guidance
Given what we know, can we assume that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a broader fatigue and inattention to other important health issues and preventive care, such as mammograms, colonoscopies, and annual physicals? In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted sharp declines in cancer screenings from previous 5-year averages: an 84% decrease in colonoscopies, 87% decrease in mammograms, and 94% decrease in pap smears.1
Surveys show that people postponed health appointments for several reasons:
- Fear of contracting COVID-19
- Closed doctors’ offices and clinics
- Loss of health insurance
However, did message fatigue play a role in their decisions as well? Moving forward, it is important to understand and address the impact of message fatigue on health-seeking behaviors.
Given the current environment of living with COVID-19, how can we help the nation get back on track with routine wellness care? We must carefully design social marketing campaigns with these realities in mind so the latest information can be heard and considered.
During the pandemic, FMG has been working with several public health agencies to address the challenges of health message fatigue, taking a sensitive and personalized approach. Here are some key recommendations derived from our learnings:
- Show empathy. Acknowledge the importance of taking care of yourself. We’re all striving to find our new normal. For quality of life in the future, we need to be creative and prioritize the overall health picture for ourselves and for our families.
- Be encouraging. Recognize that it’s not easy to get back on track when it comes to health care decisions, especially given the challenges of scheduling an appointment even for routine screenings.
- Foster empowerment with baby-step solutions. Use positivity to help build resiliency and perseverance, rather than guilting or scaring your audience into the risks of neglecting preventive care any longer. Provide everyday tips to hold people over until their screenings, how to lower high blood pressure through exercise and a healthy diet.
- Find the right messengers. Look for trusted ambassadors and respected community influencers who will resonate with your audience. People want to see that others like them are grappling with the same challenges.
It’s important to remind people that we’ve survived the biggest health challenge of our time and need to stay ahead of other physical and mental risks for sustainability and quality of life in the years ahead.
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FMG works on a wide range of public health issues focused on the prevention of chronic diseases, applying behavioral science to marketing campaigns that include the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s (NINDS) Mind Your Risks campaign to raise awareness of the risks of high blood pressure, stroke, and dementia among Black men ages 28–45; CDC’s colorectal cancer prevention campaign (Screen for Life) and breast cancer awareness campaign for young women (Bring Your Brave); and the COVID-19 Public Education Campaign (We Can Do This) for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). To learn more, link to a related blog.