The public health system in the Philippines is operating within a number of ongoing changes that include shifts in demographic and epidemiological trends in diseases; new technologies for healthcare, communication and information; emerging environmental hazards associated with globalization; and health reforms. Due to the trends, the United Nations General Assembly in September 2000 adopted a vision of poverty reduction and sustainable development as exemplified by the Millennium Development Goals which out of the eight, six are health-related.
Communication and media has an essential role in the promotion and prevention of diseases in the public health system through effective behavior-modifying interventions, providing an approach for intersectoral action for health, social participation, and empowerment.
Philippines has been slowly improving in its health status for the past 50 years and the priority of public health programs should implement strategies in the achievement of goals as they are essential to the reduction of poverty. In recent years, it has been evident that the Philippines still has increasing infant and maternal mortality rates, and because of an epidemiologic shift, the country is contending with the burden of communicable and chronic lifestyle-related diseases. Indeed, there is a great need to strengthen the system in order to address the issues.
The World Health Organization defines health not as a healthy state of wellbeing and free from diseases but rather as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” An individual and community’s health are determined by many factors. According to the WHO, the determinants of health include income and social status, education, employment and working conditions, social support networks, culture, genetics, personal behavior and coping skills, health services, and gender. Thus, the knowledge of “health determinants” is important to effectively promote health and prevent illness.
Communication is a huge part of our existence as human beings in society. Basically it is our way of conveying, transferring, and exchanging information between people or groups; it also signifies our symbolic capabilities. James Carey characterized the two functions of communication as the transmission and the ritual view. He argued that communication has a significant instrumental role (helping one in the acquisition of knowledge) as it also fulfills a “ritualistic” function which reflects human beings in a social community as its members. Communication is then characterized as the exchange of symbols with shared meaning, and that all acts of communication have a transmission component and a component involving rituals.
Efforts to change behaviors through interventions are considered communicative acts. In the function of transmission, some efforts neglect processes with rituals that are engaged through communication automatically (Carey 1989). In adopting the view of transmission in communication, one should think about the channels where messages are being distributed, to whom that specific message is intended for, how targeted audiences react and respond, and also the messages that gives the greatest effect. The considerations reflect important components in the process of communication: channel, source, receiver and the message. However, in the ritual view, targeted audiences are seen as members of social networks who fuse ideas with each another, connect in particular social ceremonies and arrive at a meaning from the performance of habitual behaviors.
The Department of Health in the United States of America defines “Health communication” as the study and use of communication strategies in informing, influencing, and motivating individuals, communities and institutions in choosing effective courses or decisions to enhance and improve one’s health and quality of life (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005). In the present media-exposed world, mass media are important communication conduits for advancing health education and promotion, disease prevention, and also shaping public policy.
In modern theoretical approaches, George Herbert Mead included three tenets of his study in symbolic interactionism: 1) People act toward things based on the meanings that the things hold for them; 2) The meanings of things are generated over time through human interaction; and 3) Meanings are modified during interaction through interpretive processes (Blumer 1986). Relating the tenets in health, one may view bottled syrup of Vitamin C as a life-saving medication for her child suffering from scurvy, while some would view the same bottle as simply a substitute for fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamin C. Every individual would act differently according to what the bottle symbolically means to them.
A sense of meaning evokes an interpretive process during which the individual communicates with himself; in the process of self-indication, he or she may come to suspend, regroup, or transform meanings. Hence, during the process of interpersonal information exchange, the perceived meaning will influence how the message is understood by a person.
People’s understanding of health is not directly from their personal experiences. Instead, most of their understanding is from the many forms of communication. Health and illness are spread in the print media (news, tabloids, and magazines), television series, film, and the Internet (King and Watson 2005). Media channels involving print journalism, advertisements, fiction films, television shows, documentaries, and computer technology affect the healthcare system and individuals’ use of the system (Friedman 2004).
Representations of health and illness in media shape people’s understanding of the experience of illness, health, and healthcare and influence health beliefs, health behaviors, healthcare practices, and policy-making (Seale 2002).
There are three theoretic communication approaches in health that are commonly used: media advocacy, social marketing, and entertainment-education approaches.
Media advocacy engages people in dialogue about the promotion of health and disease prevention, facilitating community organizing to generate demand and support for different health services, and influence policy-making bodies on public health (Rock et al. 2011).
Social marketing has been identified as a significant condition for public health campaigns to be successful because it could “create the appropriate messages for distribution, message theory and tailoring (creative marketing and messages)” (Huhman 2010). Because most social marketing approaches intend to affect individual beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors, the theories used in social marketing were generally based on psychological theories of decision-making.
Entertainment-education approaches emphasize partnership among entertainment media practitioners, public health and health communication professionals and academics for designing effective health promotion and interventions on disease prevention (Kennedy et al. 2005).
It has been mentioned that the media has an important role as a supporter in any public health setting. It is the source of correct information to promote change in health behaviors. But before the media can take on that role, it needs to understand the virus, the issues surrounding it, policy and practices, and finally, recommended correct behaviors (USAID 2006).
Communicating face-to-face is the most important social interaction in terms of creating “social realities.” The social construction of reality enables people to define what is real in their everyday life and how they gain and use knowledge to guide their behavior. Mass media help health professionals reach their audiences in a wider range, which is crucial considering that face-to-face channels of communication require human resources that could only reach smaller number of audiences or people in bigger, underserved areas (rural). Mass media provides a link between people living in the rural communities and important health information.
The function of the media is evident in the construction of human reality, in terms of the objective reality, factual details and information are being stated, and the subjective reality, the use of language and information to evoke subjective emotions, feelings and attitudes that are appropriate. Media operates in a myriad of levels in shaping and influencing worldview and cultural and psychological patterns of human behavioral response.
Radio and television are effective and efficient ways to persuade targeted audiences to adopt or create new behaviors, or reorient them of critical health issues and information. Aside from educating the public about new diseases and how to respond in times of need, media can also keep the public updated about campaigns on immunization.
Health communication combines theory and practice in deeply comprehend the communication processes and as well as the changing behaviors of humans. Threats to health like diseases and environmental calamities are deeply rooted in human behavior. Thus, through the combination of multiple disciplines relating itself to media, communication, culture and health, it is highly significant in creating ripples of change not just in an individual but in a bigger system of society.
King, M & Watson, K 2005, Representing Health: Discourses of Health and Illness in the Media, New York.
Friedman, L D 2004. Cultural Sutures: Medicine and Media, Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press.
Seale, C 2002. Media and Health, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Carey JW 1989. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.
Rock, MJ, McIntyre, L, Persaud, S A, & Thomas, K L 2011. A media advocacy intervention linking health disparities and food insecurity, Health Education Research
Huhman, M 2010. Impacting behavior by integrating health communication and marketing. Health Communication
Whittier, D K, Kennedy, M G, St Lawrence, J S, Seeley S & Beck, V 2005. Embedding health messages into entertainment television
Blumer, H 1986. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Abelos, A 2006. Sociology with Introduction to Anthropology in a Global Perspective.
(Published: September 19, 2014)