Donald Lehmann

Designing Effective Health Communications: A Meta-Analysis

Coauthor(s): Punam Keller.


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The massive costs of health care ($1.7 trillion and counting) and the problems posed by various diseases (e.g., AIDS, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, mental illness) are well known and documented. People worry more about their personal health care costs than losing their jobs, being a victim of a violent crime, or terrorist attacks. As a consequence, massive efforts to improve knowledge about detection, prevention, and treatment have been undertaken. In addition, there is growing realization that health communication strategies need to be tailored to specific segments. However, there is no general guide to the design of segment-focused health communication. To address this need, this article integrates previous studies that examine the effects of message tactics and individual differences on intentions to comply with health recommendations.

A meta-analysis of 60 studies, which report results in 584 different experimental conditions, indicates that the type of message communication affects intentions. The authors use two approaches to identify fruitful matches between message tactics and audience characteristics: a full and a reduced regression model. The results from the full regression model suggest that the meta-analysis supports the majority of the effects observed in the literature. Specifically, the results support the use of case information, social consequences, other-referencing, female communicators, and messages on detection behaviors to enhance health intentions. The results also suggest focusing on discouraging unhealthful behavior rather than promoting healthful behaviors and de-emphasizing source credibility. Finally, untailored framing and emotional messages are not advisable.

The results indicate that low-involvement audiences are more persuaded by moderately fearful gain frames, other-referencing, vivid messages, and strong source credibility, whereas highly involved audiences prefer base information and strong messages that are also moderately fearful, but they do not distinguish between levels of vividness, source credibility, and referencing. Younger audiences prefer social consequences over multiple exposures, whereas older audiences are more influenced by physical consequences regardless of the number of message exposures. Messages advocating detection behaviors are popular across age groups. Nonwhites seem to care more about vivid messages that emphasize the effect of health consequences on loved ones. Finally, messages that are persuasive to women are different from those that are persuasive to men. Specifically, women respond to emotional messages with social consequences for themselves or health consequences to near and dear ones, whereas men are more influenced by unemotional messages that emphasize personal physical health consequences. Taken together, these findings offer many opportunities to tailor health communications for different target audiences.

Source: Journal of Public Policy and Marketing
Exact Citation:
Keller, Punam, and Donald Lehmann. "Designing Effective Health Communications: A Meta-Analysis." Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 27, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 117-30.
Volume: 27
Number: 2
Pages: 117-30
Date: Fall 2008