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How to create change one behavior at a time.

Public Health is My Health

You heard her: “There’s no magic bullet.” White House Task Force Coordinator Deborah Brix told us Monday, “There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors.”

Dr. Brix was referencing hygiene and physical distancing. But there is a broader truth here: We are now witnessing just how easily our individual health behaviors can kill us. Did you smoke? You’re more at risk. Type-2 diabetes from sugary drinks? Higher risk. Do you stay in shape? You’re in better shape to battle COVID-19.

In a way, the lifestyle-related chronic conditions that have been slowly killing us for years are just getting a chance to do it more quickly.

Because public health is our health.

In other words, while physical distancing is today’s headline, physical fitness is still important. As is oral health, and safety, and climate change, and so much more. This is why health advocates who take a step back – pause for the pandemic, as many are doing – are making a mistake. Adjust? Yes. Pivot? Perhaps. But we need change for the good, now more than ever.

This is especially true in policy. Could it be any clearer today how much our nation’s policy priorities have left some groups more at risk than others? Today’s stark reality is that some demographics suffer underlying health conditions at rates many times others — in part because of how our policies shape their environment, and because of how that influences their behavior. 

There has been a lot of smart talk about the pandemic as a crisis, and about the need for “crisis communication” and “risk communication.” That’s good. But warnings and temporary rules, even when well-thought-out and clear-as-day, only get you so far. The assumption is that the risk is the motivator, which can be true for a while but rarely forever. 

So today, for a moment, as we sit through our Zoom calls and let our stubble grow, let’s also think about where we are headed after this new 9/11-like milestone. In the post-COVID-19 era to come, how can we influence behaviors and the policies that drive behavior to create a better new normal? 

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Perhaps one of the lessons in all this is how we shortchange public health broadly. Yes, a big question is why we weren’t better prepared for this pandemic. But a bigger question is: Why is our nation so quick to write-off so many to diabetes, obesity and heart disease? Why are health impacts increasingly losing out in environmental choices? Why are we not investing more, as other nations do, in the nudges and influence efforts that allow us to stare down something like a pandemic not just better prepared, but healthier? 

Risk communication is important. But the big risk picture is more about health policies and behaviors. The big risk picture, in fact, is really another way to describe public health. And public health is an important way to achieve and maintain personal health, as it prevents inequities and societal risks.

Which brings us back to behavior. Because behavior is also a product of public health — from the campaigns encouraging me to floss each day to the bike path that allows me to keep more fit. Yes, COVID-19 really is all about behavior – including those that made us stronger well before we knew what a coronavirus was.

Let’s keep moving on all our efforts to encourage what’s healthy and smart. It’ll pay off now and for many years to come. 

Peter Mitchell the chief creative officer and a principal at Marketing for Change.

Want to learn more about the determinants that drive behavior? Check out this resource.

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