Tips for Engaging Health Consumers

Outreach Series: Part Three of Three

By Ryan MacDonald, Director of Outreach and Engagement
Senior African American couple, man in wheelchair

Health consumer outreach is critical to the success of the innovative but complex delivery system transformation efforts that are taking place across the country. Many of the changes to the way care is delivered and paid for impact health consumers directly and can be exceptionally personal.  Consumers can provide valuable feedback to policy makers and others implementing new health care programs.

Harbage Consulting has assisted states, counties, and other entities in engaging health consumers as part of a number of different initiatives. For example, since 2011 we have conducted consumer education and outreach to ensure that beneficiaries involved with California’s Coordinated Care Initiative (CCI) receive accurate and timely information about the program.

Through our work on the CCI and other health care transformation projects, we have developed a number of successful strategies to overcome the common barriers to effective health consumer engagement.  Following are four tips for consideration:

#1 — Address Consumer Diversity

Health consumers reflect the diversity of our communities, and an individual’s culture, language, and background can influence how they approach the health care system. Disability, immigration status, education level, health literacy, language proficiency, and other factors are important to consider when designing health consumer outreach programs.

  • Create outreach and educational materials in languages spoken by your target audiences and make sure to identify when variations in your materials are necessary, e.g. Simplified Chinese versus Traditional Chinese.
  • Employ on-the-ground outreach staff that speak the languages and come from the communities of your target audiences. This makes them a trusted resource and ensures that they are culturally competent to work with diverse communities. They can also forge connections to community leaders and stakeholders who can serve as validators of the information you are sharing.
  • Always consider the needs of individuals with disabilities. For example, creating resources in large print, in American Sign Language or Braille, and making sure the materials comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is critical to effectively reaching all consumers.

#2 — Simplify the Message

Even the best outreach strategy can be hampered by complex messaging. Limited health literacy is prevalent, and many consumers struggle with even basic health concepts. This problem is only compounded for individuals with disabilities and for those with limited English proficiency.

  • Keep your message short, use clear language, and avoid specialized vocabulary, industry jargon, and acronyms.
  • When possible, create infographics as another way to convey information, since consumers learn in different ways.
  • Solicit feedback from health consumers about your materials and messaging. Focus groups can help identify the needs of your target audience and help you simplify and improve your messaging.
  • Consider using readability formulas to identify the appropriate reading level of your materials for your target audience. While readability formulas should not be used to determine the overall ease of comprehension, they can be a useful tool to alert you that your message is too difficult and may need revision.

#3 – Use Stories, Champions and Community Partners

Health consumers tend to seek guidance from trusted information sources over print and web-based health information, particularly in low-income and diverse communities. Engaging physicians, other consumers, family members, caregivers, community leaders, and community-based organizations is often the most effective way to get your message to your target audience.

  • Stories are a powerful way to convey information. Consumers often remember personal stories or anecdotes rather than data and statistics. Stories recounting positive experiences or lessons learned can be highly persuasive to your target audience and will encourage message uptake.
  • Champions — from public officials to faith leaders to family physicians — have a unique authority and platform to reach target audiences. It is important to create strong relationships to community leaders who can validate your message and serve as a trusted source of information about new or changing health programs. Identifying consumer champions is another way to leverage trusted sources. Consumer champions can captivate others with a powerful story and encourage them listen to your message at a level that your outreach team cannot often match.
  • Organizations rooted in the community are trusted sources of information and often have a historical and foundational relationship with the communities they serve. Using community-based organizations in your outreach efforts—whether that means leveraging your relationship to open doors, training their staff to educate your target audience, or partnering on a community event – can be a key ingredient to success.

#4 – Meet People Where They Are

Health care is uniquely personal, and a grassroots approach is an effective strategy for reaching health consumers. Using a variety of communication methods to “meet people where they are” makes it more likely that a consumer will hear and remember your message. This approach also makes it possible for consumers to understand, respond to, and champion your message in new and different ways. With modern communications technology, there have never been more formats and opportunities to engage health consumers.

  • Having one-on-one conversations with consumers is one of the most effective ways to educate them.
  • Host community events where your target audience lives, works, and gathers. Bringing in collaborative partners and other information sources is a great way to add value to your message and to create a venue for you to engage your target audience.
  • Telephone “town halls” are a cost-effective and relatively easy tool to engage directly with large numbers of consumers in their location of choice — especially those with disabilities or who have difficulties leaving the home, and/or with limited internet or computer access.
  • Depending on your target audience, using social media and web-based materials can be extremely effective in engaging your target audience as well as trusted information intermediaries.
  • Have an informational email inbox where consumers can email specific questions directly to experts.
  • On-demand videos and other content is another way to meet consumers where they are and to allow them to digest and understand information on their own time.

Read more from our outreach series:
Part One of Three: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Physician Outreach
Part Two of Three: Physician Engagement: Barriers and Strategies