Guest Blog: Challenges for health promotion practice in the digital age

Working in health promotion is tough. With so many skilled practitioners, job hunting is competitive and job security is increasingly hard to find. Have you seen a permanent health promotion job advertised lately?

Health promoters need to be skilled at working with multiple stakeholders, keep up to date with best practice, and continually chip away to improve policy and environments. It can take decades to see population health changes. Of course there are lots of rewards, from seeing communities thrive, achieving positive and meaningful engagement and making huge differences to the world that negate the need for ‘miracle cures’ and expensive treatments that consume government health budgets.

The challenges and rewards of working in health promotion have not really changed over time. But as we move more and more into a digital age, what are the emerging challenges for health promotion practice?

As a reader of the Research Connect blog, there’s a good chance you are a researcher rather than practitioner. If so, as you read on keep in mind what role you think researchers can play to generate the evidence that supports practitioners in relation to the outlined issues.

I believe the challenges for health promotion practitioners in the digital age are as follows:

Professional development and competencies. Understanding how to apply social media to health promotion practice can require a new set of skills. When it comes to use in health promotion, social media expertise is often borrowed from, or outsourced to disciplines such as communications, public relations or marketing rather than from practitioners themselves. Whilst the current health promotion competencies touch upon technology, they do not incorporate the seismic shift in communication that web 2.0 technologies and social media have introduced.

Comparison paralysis. When you consider that Coca-Cola has more likes on Facebook than Harry Potter, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, and that there is a tweet a second made directly to McDonalds, it’s easy for health promotion programs to get sucked into believing that they need to compete with the private sector. It is unrealistic to think that small scale health promotion programs can compete with the resources of the private sector. That said, health promotion programs should choose social media strategies that are consistent with their populations/target groups and in line with their overall program objectives.

Finding evidence. Social media platforms and their nuances change frequently, much faster than traditional research cycles. How are practitioners meant to know how and what they should be doing health promotion work using social media if evidence can’t keep up? The answer may lie in social media! It’s really important that practitioners who are using social media work together to share their experiences, lessons and findings. The Australian Health Promotion Association in several jurisdictions offer online groups via LinkedIn or Facebook which create a great opportunity for professionals to exchange advice and ask questions.

Lure of social media as a tool for behaviour change. One of my key messages is that social media is another tool in a health promotion practitioner’s toolbox. Remember, a tool is just that and it should not be a case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’. With shareables, images and quotes being popular content on social media, it’s tempting to piggy-back on this trend and use social media purely as an intervention tool for behaviour change and promotion of social marketing messages. It’s important to think about how social media could be used for broader health promotion objectives, including creating new cultural norms. Organisations like GetUp and Obesity Policy Coalition are experts at this. Similarly there are some fantastic examples of promoting positive mental health and reducing mental illness stigma on social media.

Despite these new challenges, health promoters are a resilient and resourceful lot. With the support of research institutes and knowledge brokers, I am confident that there will be a growing baseline of technology literacy and competency in the health promotion workforce.

Given the range of challenges, how do you think researchers can generate evidence and support practitioners? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Written by Kristy Schirmer

Kristy Schirmer worked as health promotion practitioner for more than a decade prior to starting Zockmelon, a consultancy that focuses on health promotion and social media strategy.

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