Center for Arts in Medicine

Framework for Using the Arts for Health Communication

Key Concepts

1. Effective arts-based health messaging programs are multi-modal, highly structured and interdisciplinaryPrograms shown to have significant impacts on health literacy and behavior change are built on structured interdisciplinary collaborations between governmental agencies, non-governmental public health and community organizations, and artists or arts organizations. Arts and public health partnerships are highly synergistic, and arts-based health messaging campaigns are most effective when designed within a comprehensive set of messaging modalities, or a multi-modal approach. In-depth program planning, leadership and oversight from public health partners are crucial.

2. Effective arts-based health messaging programs are built on clear theoretical foundations. Social Learning Theory is at the heart of nine identified theoretical frameworks that inform effective arts-based health messaging programs. The foundations that support these programs align with those commonly used by public health professionals.

3. Various forms of drama, music, and the visual arts can be used to focus and clarify health messages. Serial dramas presented via radio, television and live forum, popular and traditional music, and visual arts modalities including murals and illustrations are the most common and effective arts modalities for health messaging. Radio dramas have been found to be the most cost effective channel to bring health messages to mass audiences in some regions. All of these art forms simplify, clarify and focus health messages, providing a means for communication that is engaging, relevant, memorable, and compelling.

4. Through culturally and personally relevant narratives, the arts engage people emotionally and can facilitate behavior change. To be effective, behavior change interventions must be embedded in local realities. Through culturally and personally relevant narratives, the arts engage people emotionally. The arts utilize cognitive and emotional structures to facilitate dialogue, allow communication around culturally sensitive subjects, and reveal underlying social issues that influence behaviors, including social and cultural beliefs, stigma, and tradition. The dramatic arts, in particular, can portray health related scenarios with realism and in ways that apply to every day life.  Familiar scenarios and characters that elicit empathy spur audience members to consider their own realities and make new choices. 

5. Use of the arts, including celebrity artists and mass media formats, can effectively reach target audiences in large numbers. Mass media formats such as serial radio dramas, popular and traditional music, and visual formats such as murals are effective means for rapid health messaging. Effective programs target population segments, design themes around behaviour change using behavioural theories, include strong evaluation frameworks, and integrate a wide range of interpersonal reinforcement activities. Involvement of celebrities utilizes expansive social networks (audiences, fans and followers) and brings credible endorsement of ideas and encouragement for specific behaviour changes.  

6. Peer-to-peer social learning expands the reach of arts-based messaging and can spur even greater behaviour change than direct learning. Recent studies show that even under extreme conditions, such as the current Ebola epidemic, affected communities can rapidly internalize positive health messages, abandon negative health messages and refine known health messages through social learning constructs.  Messages relayed through social learning and parasocial interaction, such as interaction with performers and arts media, have similar cognitive effects. People who hear health information relayed by those who learned it through an arts-based channel are more likely to change behaviours. This indirect social learning has been documented in studies of serial radio dramas and theater in African communities.

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