Empowering Healthy Changes with The Health Belief Model

As a health and wellness communications agency owner, my job is to understand what drives the health choices we make every day.

This morning I woke up, made my Greek yogurt with berries, granola and honey and sat on the rooftop deck meditating for ten minutes. Then I walked down to the coffee shop to check in with work (I’m on vacation right now) before my TRX fitness class. I’m kind of obnoxiously proud of myself when I make healthy choices like this. But this type of behavior was a long time coming and a series of internal and external influencers in the making.

There are a number of scientific theories that attempt to understand and explain how people make decisions about their health. This blog series will explore some of the most well researched theories and relate them to communications strategies.

Health Belief Model

In the 1950’s a group of psychologists introduced this theory as part of a study attempting to understand why people would or would not use available preventive services. As the name implies, this theory deals largely with people’s beliefs.

Specifically it addresses perceptions around susceptibility, severity of a condition, the effectiveness or benefits of taking action, and any real or perceived barriers to taking action. As communicators we should understand how these perceptions are formed in order to dispel any false beliefs and then supply the information and resources at the appropriate stage of the communications cycle to encourage healthy action.


A person’s perception of susceptibility can be directly addressed through communications focusing on risk factors for certain disease. However, it has generally been found that people underestimate their own susceptibility to disease. The likelihood that a person will engage in healthy preventive measures related to any disease is directly proportional to their belief that they are susceptible to that disease.

Therefor, perceptions of susceptibility can be modified through communications explaining risk factors and dispelling cultural misperceptions around a disease or condition.  These types of communications are general in nature and often target a broad audience. The role of this type of communication is simply to educate a person about risk factors and plant the seed for next steps.

Severity of Consequences

A person’s perception of how severe a condition is can be a powerful motivator. The CDC’s Tips from Former Smokers campaign illustrates the severe consequences of smoking. Individuals are shown preparing for their days by covering tracheotomy scars or pulling on artificial limbs – perhaps the most severe consequences of smoking just shy of death itself.

However, a person must first believe they are susceptible to the disease or condition. Campaigns like the one mentioned above are engaging with people who already know their behaviors have put them at risk. The goal is to clearly state the negative outcomes of risky behaviors in order to incite a positive reaction.


Perceived Effectiveness

We are generally motivated to act when we perceive the outcomes of our actions to be significant and effective.

We can address the perception of benefits directly through marketing. Our messaging should concentrate on the available evidence demonstrating the clear benefits of making a healthy choice.

Every day, a big heap of blueberries finds its way into my belly – in oatmeal, on a salad, or in my yogurt. Somewhere along the way the message of blueberry’s cancer fighting power sank into my brain and I believed it. I believe that by eating my blueberries, I’m giving my body the benefit of cancer-fighting nutrients.


Real and Perceived Barriers

Barriers can be concrete and psychological – even cultural in some instances. A lack of means or opportunity can affect a person’s ability to take action.

The idea of self-efficacy – a person’s confidence in their ability to successfully perform an action – comes into play here as well. That nagging inner voice that tells us we can’t run a mile, can’t stop smoking, can’t like salads. It’s self-defeating mindsets at their worst.

Supportive programming and consistent communications can be helpful in overcoming a person’s perceived barriers. In addition, incentives programs can help people overcome concrete barriers like finances.

Many of my clients offer gift cards and free health screenings for employees. This form of incentivizing participation can be very effective as it provides both the information and the resources a person might need to take action.

Savvy communicators use these Health Fair platforms to pair real results (blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol readings, etc.) with targeted communications addressing related issues. The gift card, which is the initial lure to participation becomes an effective means of providing support for those with financial barriers that might otherwise stop them from taking action.


The Communications Cycle

As communicators, we need to produce a series of messages that target individuals’ beliefs at various stages throughout the Health Behavior Model.

First, a general groundwork of information must be laid to educate and inform people of behaviors and other factors that make them susceptible to diseases and conditions.

From there, we must clearly share the facts about the ramifications of not taking healthy actions and demonstrate the effectiveness of such actions.  And we must create supportive programming that helps foster activity by addressing our audience’s barriers both real and perceived.