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Let us not lose the moment or the momentum on healthcare communication

The pandemic spurred quite a few mega-trends in healthcare and a major overhaul in the spatial equilibrium of industry sectors and players. It revealed regional disparities and the consequences of several decades of under-investment in health. However, it also made many organisations and citizens review their priorities and give physical, mental health and wellness their due. Today, as businesses and routines resume, what are the ways to sustain this change? How do we align ourselves with Government priorities and drive improved communication on healthcare? Here are a few elements to consider.

Sustaining communication for behavioural change

The last 26 months have dramatically changed our perspective on health and wellness. With strong and consistent messages coming from the political leaders and social influencers on testing, masking, social distancing and vaccinations, we saw a noticeable rise in pandemic-compliant behaviour which translated into a sizeable increase in testing and vaccinations. According to the Union Health Ministry, till date, more than 195 crore cumulative vaccine doses have been administered so far under the nationwide Covid-19 vaccination drive. We can easily replicate this campaign and COWIN model for other health programmes such as NCDs, tuberculosis, tobacco control and women’s health.

Recently, there are reports that National Health Authority is planning to use COWIN portal to speed roll vaccinations of children and pregnant mothers against preventable diseases. This is the right time to empower more women to go for health checks, discourage youth against tobacco and alcohol use, and raise awareness on timely tests and diagnosis. It is time to also expose marketing and pressure maneuvers by vested interests that are against public health. We have to adopt a bolder, enhanced approach in a world reshaped by the pandemic.

Going local

There are several best practice examples across India to show that communication messages are effective if they are of immediate relevance, localised, culturally aligned, hard-hitting, informative, and even perhaps, aspirational. The approach should be focused on the audiences we want to reach, their roots and environment, and the messaging needs to suit the channel of communication. As an example, urban women can be reached through an Instagram story or a news article but for women in rural India, a radio message, or a community session with ASHA or an ANM would be more effective.

Technology tales

The National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) laid the groundwork and India is today, the second-fastest adopter of digital services. With internet users likely to reach 900 million by 2025 – the pandemic has scripted a whole new chapter for digital India and healthcare. Lockdowns and social distancing saw the healthcare sector adapting quickly to telemedicine, remote care, out of hospital care services and more. Start-ups and smaller medical technology companies did outstanding work around self-test kits, health monitoring tools, health trackers, low-cost critical care equipment and new data insights. These stories need to be told and heard. What was not possible a few years ago can be done today. A patient living in a tier 3 town can get tested at home, access reports the same evening, share these with a physician sitting thousands of miles away over a quick video chat and get medicines delivered at home in less than 48 hours.

The rising number of social media users in India underlines the importance of using technology for communication. It is a faster, effective means of reaching out to specific audiences. Short posts, videos, creatives and infographics are easy to share or like and can be accessed by millions within seconds over a smartphone. Personal stories and survivor journeys can be shared through new-age media platforms for busting misconceptions, educating the public and advocating with the right stakeholders.

Sector-based challenges and systemic issues

Today, broader discussions have begun on increasing resilience and being better prepared for future health, economic, social and climate-related shocks. Industry associations within healthcare have advocated with the Government for clearer policy frameworks, relief and supporting mechanisms to hasten business recovery, address systemic issues, additional resources and building healthcare infrastructure as a strategic asset. In addition, there is a need to talk about creating COVID or emergency care centres so that hospitals can continue to treat critical and non-COVID patients; a separate emergency fund that can provide capital for medical equipment and R&D in pharmaceuticals. Healthcare in India is still under-funded, so we need to continue fostering joint campaigns, partnerships and collaboration as talking points to support needs of the healthcare sector.

Health promotion

Health is not an isolated, disparate subject, but is connected to all that we do in our daily lives – what we eat, where we live and work, how physically active we are, how we manage stress, and our lifestyle. Health promotion and preventive health received the importance they deserve, and we must ensure this doesn’t ebb. Urging people to address avoidable risk factors, eating local, seasonal foods, boosting immunity, exercising regularly and going for health checks as part of health promotion campaigns must remain in focus.

Alignment with Government

The Swasthya Chintan Shivir held between central and State chief ministers in March this year was perhaps the first Health Summit by the Government in many years. It focused on learning from state-level best practices and drawing a roadmap for the future to build a healthy India. India will soon set up a central public health cadre for healthcare professionals which will help implement policies. The National Health Authority has recently launched a public dashboard to enable us to access real-time health data. The Government is also launching a TB patient-village adoption scheme as part of its efforts to eradicate TB by 2025. In a recent roundtable with leading private hospitals, the Government emphasized on indigenous, cost-effective, quality healthcare models through collective efforts of all stakeholders.

This is an exciting, dynamic time for healthcare. Let us act now to sharpen and sustain communication, design campaigns, devise a bolder approach and adopt atypical approaches to redefine health in India. Let us not lose either the moment or the momentum.

(Chandra Ramakrishnan is Group Business Director, Avian WE; views expressed in this column are author’s own)

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