The study by Barile and colleagues in the current issue of Preventing Chronic Disease highlights the heavy toll of chronic diseases, especially multiple chronic conditions, on the health and economy of the United States. Far and away, chronic conditions cause more deaths, disability, years of reduced productivity and quality of life, and health care costs than all other health threats facing the nation.
Yet Americans’ support of government action to prevent, control, and manage chronic diseases lags far behind their support of action to protect them from the “big, scary” public health threats of Ebola, bioterrorism, and infectious disease outbreaks such as the foodborne E. coli illnesses recently tied to Chipotle’s and Costco.
That was a major finding from research that the CDC Foundation conducted earlier this year with consumers and business leaders to gauge their perceptions and support of CDC’s mission and work. It was the latest confirmation of a reality we have documented for decades: Americans remain focused on unconventional health threats beyond their control, not on the “conventional” threats of chronic diseases that typically involve at least a measure of individual control and personal responsibility.
What can be done to reduce this “competitive disadvantage” in terms of public recognition and support for chronic disease prevention?
We can start by acknowledging the issues Americans want to hear about, like combatting global threats, then move on to talk about what they need to hear about, like reducing obesity. We might say, “In addition to being America’s first line of defense against outbreaks and bioterrorism, CDC is working to protect our citizens from threats to their health, safety, and security that take far more lives.” Then we can delve into specific issues―smoking, nutrition, physical activity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease.
Communication is key to making the case for chronic disease prevention—and it’s needed at the national, state, and local levels.
- Communicating the burden of chronic disease builds concern: “This is an urgent problem for America.”
- Communicating opportunities for prevention builds hope: “We know what to do to prevent it in our state.”
- And communicating the impact of our interventions builds support: “Our work is making lives better for the people in our community.”
There is no better way to individualize, personalize, and humanize our work than telling real stories of real people. CDC’s well-funded tobacco education campaign, Tips From Former Smokers, is using this approach with remarkable results. But storytelling is a strategy that works for any issue and any budget. We can tell stories in elevator conversations and conference lectures; in tweets, blogs, and Facebook posts; in letters to the editor and phone calls to policy makers; in fact sheets and press releases; and in weekly newsletters and annual reports.
Our stories can show how our approaches to preventing, controlling, and managing chronic diseases and multiple chronic conditions are “best buys” for improving the public’s health.
- Environmental approaches: We can describe how the CDC-supported Market Mobile program brought affordable, locally grown fruits and vegetables to an inner-city neighborhood in Boston by enlisting restaurants, schools, hospitals, worksites, grocery stores, corner stores, and farm stands to serve 50,000 families throughout the region.
- Health care system interventions: We can tell how an older adult with a strong family history of heart disease was finally able to get his blood pressure under control through the efforts of his Cherokee Nation health care team—a Million Hearts Hypertension Control Champion—who taught him practical ways to cut his sodium consumption and helped him adhere to his prescribed blood-pressure medication.
- Community programs linked to clinical services: We can tell the story of a woman whose son excitedly told her, “Mommy, I can fit my arms around you now!”, thanks to her weight loss while completing CDC’s National Diabetes Prevention Program offered at her local Y in Atlanta.
Working together as public health promoters and storytellers, we can build widespread support for the life-saving work that PCD chronicles every issue. For help in writing and sharing your story, visit CDC’s Success Stories tool.
Jeffrey W. McKenna, MS
Associate Director for Communication Science
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention