The global economic and health care crises are intrinsically linked, but there is an opportunity for one to have a positive impact on the other. Ken Rabin, PhD, proposes four new PR parameters. Dr Rabin is Director of GLOBALHealthPR, the largest independent public relations group dedicated exclusively to health and medical communications worldwide, of which VIVA! Communications is the exclusive Australian partner.

Looking at the correlation between the global health care and economic crises, my first instinct was the hackneyed allusion to a ‘perfect storm’ – the world’s economy goes into a tailspin followed by prolonged doldrums. As a result of the financial crisis, governments and private sector payers across the developed world are forced to cut health budgets and ration care at the very moment their aging populations demand escalating medical services.
Our aging society is a particular issue. Politicians in virtually every developed country have known for at least two decades that the post-war Baby Boom would result in a massive ‘bubble’ of older, sicker citizens with far fewer active workers to pay the costs of care.

Fully a decade ago, the United Nations hosted a World Assembly on Aging where it agreed that:

• Population aging is unprecedented,
• Population aging is pervasive,
• Population aging is enduring, and
• Population aging has profound implications.

Forced decisions

For all the clear warnings, no meaningful decisions were taken during the flush economic period from 1993 to 2006 to address this problem. Now, these decisions force themselves upon us in times where thoughtful compromises are harder to come by.

As if this were not enough, the private sector companies that health care providers turn to for new medical treatments and diagnostic technologies have experienced a long dry spell. ‘Big pharma’ instead have looked to mergers and generics to drive sales, revenue and share-price.

This is not a happy picture; but it unfortunately sums up the present state of affairs.

Of course, for every pessimistic concept like the ‘perfect storm,’ there is always an optimistic antidote. The one that I look to comes from the emerging economic powerhouse, China, and the common assertion that the Chinese written character for ‘crisis’ is composed of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’

More effective communications

The crisis and the danger in this situation are obvious. As a 40-year veteran of both the frontlines and academic backwaters of health care communications, I see the opportunity to reverse the health care crisis lies within a number of parameters, all amenable to more effective communications:

• The perception of health care as a social cost or entitlement must be replaced by the perception that it is an economic driver to be fostered for effective results. Just as consumer technologies drove economic success in Silicon Valley, so too can investments in health advancements reignite the global economy. Science, health care and biotechnology has been extremely valuable to the Swiss economy. Led by major pharmaceutical and health companies such as Roche, Novartis and Nestle, the Swiss grew their commitment to research and development to 2.5 percent of their GDP in 2010, driving their way out of recession through brain power and cross-border collaboration.

• We must replace the perception of health care as an unlimited personal right with the view that it is an intrinsic personal responsibility. No longer do health care costs impact simply the unwell; the burden is felt by all. Providers, such as the UK NHS’s Solutions for Public Health program, are taking heed of this; educating individuals, families and employers on the broader impact of public health. Coupled with a push to share the cost of an unhealthy society, through so called ‘fat taxes,’ encouraging healthy lifestyles and addressing avoidable disease is in the interest of all.

• While we would all welcome breakthroughs in treatment or prevention of human disease, the best use of currently available preventive, diagnostic and treatment techniques would result in massive reductions in morbidity. In September 2011, the UN discussed the dangers of non-communicable diseases and how countless deaths and billions of dollars in health costs could be reduced if we applied existing science. Proven tools are often underused, including use of basic sanitary measures to reduce infection and the growing skepticism of vaccines, adding to health costs.

• The range of media available to health care communicators offers unparalleled opportunity to educate individuals and families about health behaviors. As individuals change the way they receive information, so too must the way we communicate health issues. From websites and social media, to mobile and entertainment, communicators must stay connected to their audience wherever they are. Many have already successfully adopted these techniques, such as online widgets and YouTube channels from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The global economic crisis may get worse before it gets better, but there is no reason why this crisis should stand irrevocably in the path of achievable and measurable progress in health care; nor should we ignore health and science as a way out of the financial quagmire. Health communicators occupy a unique position to help bring about this positive change.

This article first appeared on the International Public Relations Association website.