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On Healthy People 2020: Improving Trust & Health Literacy Should Be Priority

Although it is not widely known, the US government is responsible for meetinghp2020.gif specific public health goals over a ten-year period.  Because of an initiative called Healthy People, government agencies like Health and Human Services have committed to, among other things, eliminating health disparities between people of different racial and economic backgrounds by the year 2010.  

Advocacy organizations, public officials and others take an avid interest in the development of new Healthy People ten-year objectives.  The process is about to start again as government formulates goals it must achieve by 2020.  

The Internet has greatly expanded the government’s ability to reach out to a broad group of stakeholders for input on the Healthy People 2020 objectives.  R. Craig Lefebvre, a noted social marketing expert and adjunct professor of Prevention and Community Health at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, is helping to lead an effort to gather input and analysis from the health blogosphere and other sources.  He has launched a series on his blog featuring posts from a range of experts about “how health communications, social marketing and health information technologies can contribute to our public health goals for the year 2020.”  


My Goals For Healthy People 2020: Improving Health Literacy & Restoring Trust In Official Public Health Sources

Today, the New York Times published an article that (once again) sounds the alarm about the sharp increase in measles cases epidemiologists have observed over the first seven months of 2008.  The cause: “a growing number of parents are refusing to vaccinate their children” because of fears vaccines cause autism.  Here’s the catch: numerous studies have conclusively demonstrated that there is no link between the measles vaccine and autism.  On the other hand, the US is witnessing an explosion of autism cases and there are no clear reasons why this is happening.  

I believe poor health literacy and lack of trust in official sources are two reasons the measles vaccine-autism link has gained traction over the past decade.  First, it may be difficult for fearful parents to digest the results of complicated studies – especially when they are reading information online without the benefit of a trained professional to assist them.

In addition, a significant percentage of Americans don’t trust government and medical professionals to steer them down the right path.  This is especially true for “mild” conditions like measles they view as non-life threatening.  For example, J. B. Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue, told the New York Times that “most parents [he knows] will take measles over autism.”  

The measles outbreak is only one example of the negative impact of poor health literacy and declining trust.  I think it is vitally important for the people responsible for developing Healthy People 2020 to honestly address these problems and determine how to solve them.   

To learn more about Lefebvre’s blog series and to participate in efforts to shape Healthy People 2020, please click here and here.

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2 Comments/Trackbacks

I agree that health literacy is important. However, in the example of the measles vaccine, my gut tells me that fear and emotion trump any objective rational learnings and understanding about any health issue or situation.

Thanks for the note about HP Fard! As most of us know, trust is going to be earned. One way to do that is to engage as many people as possible in the formulation of health objectives for the nation - whether they actively contribute to it or observe the process. The new media give us all new ways of making change happen, demanding more transparent processes in government policy making and giving voice to people not typically heard from. The more engagement we have now, perhaps the healthier, more personally productive (and happier?) people can be by 2020.

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