In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Health Communication

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks and Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Media Channels
  • Special Topics and Specific Populations
  • Health Literacy
  • Health, Mobile Health, and Social Media
  • Evidence Base, Research Methods, and Theories

Public Health Health Communication
W. Douglas Evans
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0042


Communication and marketing are broad, interdisciplinary fields that draw from disciplines such as psychology, economics, sociology, business, public policy, and media studies. Health communication and marketing focus on the application of these disciplines to changing health-promoting and disease-preventing behaviors. This article cites leading works that have shaped theory, practice, and research in health communication and marketing. Schiavo 2007 (see Introductory Works) broadly defines health communication as the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence decisions that enhance health. Kotler and Andreasen 2003 (see Textbooks and Reference Resources) suggests that social marketing differs from other areas of marketing only with respect to the marketer’s objectives and those of the organization. Social marketing seeks to benefit the target audience and society rather than the marketer. Communication channels for health information changed dramatically in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The old paradigm of a one-way channel to disseminate information has given way to a multimode transactional model of communication. Social marketers are now faced with challenges, such as increases in the number and types of health issues competing for the public’s attention, significant limitations on people’s time, and an increase in the number and types of communication channels, including mobile phones and the Internet. Communication research has shown that using a multimodal approach is the most effective way to reach health audiences. Communication and marketing rely heavily on lessons drawn from the commercial sector. Commercial firms have greater resources, longer time horizons for brand and other promotional campaigns, and more than a century of success in building the consumer economy. Health communicators and social marketers have adapted techniques such as branding of behaviors and competitor analysis (where competitors may be unhealthful behaviors or unhealthful commercial products or services) from the commercial sector. Combined with the power of digital media to build awareness of messages, these commercial strategies are the future of health communication and marketing. Using these techniques, health communication and marketing can target not only individual behavior but also public policy. Social marketing in tobacco control, for example, has been used to promote policy change and new legislation, leading to changes in social norms and the acceptability of smoking. Public health organizations use branding strategies to promote social mobilization and to influence public debate and opinion. Whether to focus on individual behavior or larger policy issues involves a strategic decision by the communicator or marketer, on the basis of available resources and competition for public attention.

Introductory Works

There are several very good introductory works on health communication and social marketing. These include such well-known works as Making Health Communication Programs Work: A Planner’s Guide (National Cancer Institute 2001), better known as the “Pink Book.” Other texts explore behavior-change theory with a focus on communication as an intervention strategy for changing behavior. There are also good introductory texts on social marketing, some of which are described here; others that are intended primarily for instruction or professional use are listed under Textbooks and Reference Resources. Briefly, National Cancer Institute 2001 and National Cancer Institute 2005 represent compendiums of best practice in developing programs and in theories and the use of theory in program development and evaluation. The 2001 text is now widely regarded as a bible of sorts for practitioners and is used in many educational settings. Schiavo 2007 provides a hands-on, step-by-step approach to health communication without a direct focus on marketing. Armstrong and Kotler 2007 covers the entire management enterprise and uses extensive global case studies to describe four major themes, including digital technology and branding. Bernhardt 2006 outlines the field of health marketing, Kreps 2008 describes challenges in cancer communication, and Evans 2006 offers a primer on social marketing in health and health care. These works distill central strategies, research, and emerging trends in the field.

  • Armstrong, Gary, and Philip Kotler. 2007. Marketing: An introduction. 12th ed. New York: Prentice Hall.

    Focuses on four major marketing themes: building and managing profitable customer relationships, building and managing strong brands to create brand equity, harnessing new marketing technologies in the digital age, and marketing in a socially responsible way around the globe. Intended for business and marketing students, the book has extensive coverage of social marketing, corporate social-responsibility marketing, and related social applications of marketing.

  • Bernhardt, Jay M. 2006. Improving health through health marketing. Preventing Chronic Disease 3.3: 1–3.

    Defines health marketing and distinguishes it from health communication. Argues for the importance of using marketing principles to maximize the effectiveness of public health. Outlines strategies and a vision for development of the field.

  • Evans, W. Douglas. 2006. How social marketing works in health care. British Medical Journal 322.7551: 1207–1210.

    DOI: 10.1136/bmj.332.7551.1207-a

    A primer on social marketing and its evolution from commercial marketing practice. Focuses on the use of social marketing in health-care settings. Offers recommendations for how health-care providers can reinforce campaigns.

  • Kreps, Gary L. 2008. Strategic use of communication to market cancer prevention and control to vulnerable populations. Health Marketing Quarterly 25.1–2: 204–216.

    DOI: 10.1080/07359680802126327

    Describes challenges in cancer communication to vulnerable populations facing health inequalities. Explores strategies to overcome challenges and outlines an agenda for the future.

  • National Cancer Institute. 2001. Making health communication programs work: A planner’s guide. Rev. ed. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute.

    Step-by-step guide to conceptualizing, designing, testing, implementing, and evaluating health communication programs, written in plain language. Offers guidelines rather than rules for designing communications. Recognizes that programs are situation specific. Provides a “menu” approach for picking strategies. Addresses the role of health communication in program planning, frameworks, and theories of change and the roles of market research and program evaluation.

  • National Cancer Institute. 2005. Theory at a glance: A guide for health promotion practice. 2d ed. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute.

    Describes health behavior theory and its applicability to specific topic areas, including health communication. Makes health behavior theory accessible and provides tools to solve problems and assess the effectiveness of health communication and other health promotion programs. Helps users understand how individuals, groups, and organizations behave and change in order to design effective programs. Illustrates the utility of theory as a tool, especially where detailed programmatic evidence is lacking.

  • Schiavo, Renata. 2007. Health communication: From theory to practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Introductory text that provides an overview of health communication both from theoretical and practice perspectives. Focuses on the multidisciplinary nature of health communication and contributions of a wide range of behavioral and social sciences. Explores modes of communication ranging from interpersonal to mass. Concludes with step-by-step guidance on setting communication objectives, planning and design, and implementation strategies.

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