[pullquote align=”right”]The impact of a public health program is the product of its efficacy (potency to affect behavior) times its reach (the number of people who participate in the intervention). [/pullquote]While most people think that their cancer risk is primarily hereditary, in reality, 70% of all cancers are affected by behaviors such as smoking, overeating, and avoiding exercise. The Center for Health Communications Research (CHCR) takes on public health issues like the link between unhealthy behaviors and the diseases they encourage.
Researchers at CHCR gather standardized, psychometrically sound measures, which are then used to create questionnaires and design algorithms that use assessment data to generate tailored intervention messages. This research and program development requires interdisciplinary teams of behavioral scientists, health counselors, software developers, and media professionals to share knowledge across a wide range of disciplines, which makes NCRC a particularly apt fit for CHCR.
Tailored programs have the potential to offer the reach of a mass media campaign, and the efficacy of one-on-one counseling by combining critical information for a thorough assessment, building personal connections over time, and empowering individuals to take control of their lives and their health. CHCR has developed over 100 tailored interventions on topics such as alcohol use, HPV, smoking, and weight loss, and is designated a Center of Excellence in Cancer Communications Research by the National Cancer Institute. One such intervention, Puff City, was awarded the 2012 NOVA Award from the American Hospital Association.
Black teens have a much higher rate of asthma than whites, and yet Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System found that there really weren’t any programs targeting that population. So they set about developing a computer program to address the problem, with help from other local institutions, including CHCR.
Each time a Puff City participant logs in for a visit, Puff Man and other characters ask questions about the user’s asthma and try to tailor the message to each participant, sort of like a personalized talk show. Statistics after the first year and a half show that teens who used the specialized software vs. a generic version reported fewer days and nights with asthma symptoms, fewer missed school days and fewer hospitalizations.
Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System, wonders whether such a technology-based approach could help to manage other diseases such as HIV or diabetes, especially ones that affect young people, whose brains are wired to think through technology: “Clearly, the country is dealing with these same issues. The problem is not unique to Detroit, and I think in many cases the solutions are replicable. It does take leadership and it does take initiative, but there are certainly ways this can be adopted across the country.”
The impact of a public health program is the product of its efficacy (potency to affect behavior) times its reach (the number of people who participate in the intervention). Tailored programs like Puff City, and others developed by CHCR, will offer more opportunities in the future for public health officials like Schlichting to implement innovative solutions to community health problems.