Communication as an Essential Component of Environmental Health Science

Article excerpt

The science of health communication is becoming as central to the field of environmental health as the science of epidemiology. Within the 21st century, such events as Hurricane Katrina, H1N1 influenza, and concerns about chemical exposure in imported drywall have demonstrated the value of communication as a means of protecting public health. When such events occur, health professionals must seek disease control interventions but also address audiences' information needs. Health communication science is an essential underpinning for such activities.

Health communication science provides a research-based foundation for developing strategies to inform and influence individual and community health decisions. The use of research adds scientific rigor to health communication planning and implementation. Health communication professionals are uniquely trained and qualified to conduct communication research, develop effective and duplicable health promotion strategies and campaigns, and evaluate communication effectiveness.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) included health communication science among the Healthy People 2010 objectives. HHS states that during the first decade of the 21st century, health communication has been an essential contributor to improved personal and community health. Public health professionals must continue to build an accessible, robust reservoir of high-quality, audience-appropriate environmental health information tailored to segments of the population, especially the underserved. Additionally, because environmental health events often are highly visible and polarizing, environmental health professionals would benefit from receiving training in health and risk communication, effective communication methods, and emerging communication technologies.

The HHS mandate also reflects a growing realization that health communication science has made substantial contributions to environmental health. Communication science has helped to develop such enhancements to public health practice as

* a large body of health communication research,

* risk communication tools and methods,

* methods for communicating effectively with news media and other audiences,

* audience segmentation tools to reach culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and

* plain language and other tools to improve health literacy

These contributions have improved public health message delivery and promoted behavior change. For example, communication helped to address successfully a recent outbreak of cryptosporidium in Utah and Texas.

The practice of communicating with and engaging communities directly makes environmental health unique. Communication of health interventions and recommendations must reach defined segments within affected communities. Environmental health communicators need to collaborate closely with public health scientists to formulate and deliver information and recommendations to affected communities. Messages need to consider literacy and educational levels, audience demographics, local beliefs and values, socioeconomic issues, and discrimination, as well as the potential for stigma that may be attached to issues.

The evolving science of health communication is not without challenges. One such challenge is the notion that health communication is a "soft science." Occasionally, environmental scientists believe they already are effective health communicators, and they may bypass health communication professionals. Such actions have led to difficulties in message delivery and community interaction. The professional environmental health community would benefit from establishing a culture in which health communication is an essential component of environmental health science and communication specialists are as indispensible as toxicologists, epidemiologists, or medical officers.

Yet before such a goal can be attained, health communication science must overcome a number of challenges. …