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The Importance of Aligning Marketing Strategy with Population Health Improvement

Imagine – an entire community, busting the bonds of a health constraint, practically in unison, with help from a marketing strategy for a healthcare program.

That’s the idea behind community health – a plan of action and awareness to identify, address, aid, and help maintain a demographic’s wellbeing through healthcare-sponsored initiatives. Especially against a widespread condition.

The challenge: Informing an at-risk population with enough urgency to spur action, but light enough on fear-building that those who need the help most remain open to it. The efficient treatment of a widespread health condition can reduce costs to healthcare providers. These populations can be as vast as a nation or city, but also can include:

  • Age groups
  • Company employees
  • Ethnic groups
  • People with common disabilities
  • Prisoners
  • Students

Population health takes on many forms and levels of involvement in our organizations. How to speak not only to that demographic but also to the stage in the process in which they find themselves is crucial. The messages – and how they’re delivered and received – play a vital role.

Healthcare providers have an immense task on their hands. But your organization can hit marketing goals while improving population health and leading behavior changes.

Why is population health important?

If population health is an unfamiliar term to you – well, it is for many. Many consumers believe families are solely responsible for their health. Barry Sanders, Director of New Business and Healthcare Category Expert at The Brandon Agency, saw population health on the conference agenda for a healthcare marketing organization recently.

“What does that even mean? That was my first thought,” Sanders said. “What I heard during those 40 minutes opened my eyes to an obvious, but a not-so-much-talked-about concept. It deals with all the influences and opportunities for us all to play an active role in ensuring the wellbeing of our families and neighbors, especially their children.”

Sanders learned from what he calls the most effective healthcare marketing tactic he’s seen.

“From an early age, we can incorporate the most appropriate and relevant messaging at the most opportune times because of the environment and accessibility to the target audience: our youngest children,” Sanders said. “Parents don’t always have all the answers either, so these same resources are readily available, too.”

Healthcare strategy professionals have an opportunity and the skills to lead the population health conversation.

5 takeaways about population health

1. Not much is said about population health

Mentions of PH likely bring to mind pH – the level of potential hydrogen in a substance. How can we make population health well-known enough to supplant that? “It is never portrayed as a vital big-picture issue,” Sanders said. “The media speaks to it in parts and pieces, as with diabetes prevention for example, but never speaks about it in a macro sense.”

More likely, sessions in healthcare seminars will focus on social media marketing than population health.

“Even the healthcare marketing industry is lukewarm on the importance of population health,” Sanders said. Perhaps that’s changing.

A study in The Millbank Quarterly, a multidisciplinary journal of population health and health policy, identifies two ideas that characterize increased attention to population health research. The first: focus on nonmedical and behavioral health determinants. Access to healthcare and the presence of detrimental lifestyle habits – poor diet, lack of exercise, consumption of goods considered unhealthy (such as smoking, drinking, and drug abuse). That also includes social factors such as:

  • Education
  • Housing conditions
  • Neighborhood context
  • Poverty
  • Social support
  • Stress
  • Working conditions

A Brandon Agency study discovered elements people would like to see from hospitals to improve population health:

64%: Free health screenings

43%: Free classes on health topics

35%: Health education programs in schools

35%: Help for patients to coordinate among providers

27%: Sponsored exercise programs

19%: Encouragement for consumers to adopt healthy habits

The second concerns distribution of health, rather than an average. Where are optimal health conditions found? How widespread is poorer health? Research reveals a better understanding of disparities, especially as it relates to race and socioeconomic status. Biological, economic, and social factors compound that.

From a consumer perspective, it’s simple: Will this program benefit me, and to what cost and extent of my participation?

From a marketing perspective, it’s also simple: How can we reach the right demographic, with the right message, in the right tone, to keep engagement high enough to yield enough good results to perpetuate the program?

2. External factors impact population health

For a person, especially a child, parents and home environments are the first to shape population health. Five prevalent factors of health status, especially early in life, are:

Economic stability

What life factors can stabilize health? Family income, education, employment, community safety, and social support are influencers. These are likely to impact how well and how long we live. They also enable people to make healthy choices for medical care, safe housing, and effective stress management, according to County Health Ratings & Roadmaps, a Robert Wood Johnson foundation project.


The more educated, the better the chance for good health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data suggests that, controlling for basic demographics and income, those who have less than a high school diploma are 2.4 more likely as high school graduates to self-rate their health as poor.


Healthcare access allows for diagnoses and clean bills of health that can affect behaviors. A Washington Post story reveals Medicaid coverage, state-administered and federally regulated, has major impacts on stabilizing financial security and mental health for its participants.

Built environment

What’s nearer to homes, grocery stores or fast food restaurants? This proximity impacts measures such as blood pressure and body mass.

Social and community context

What relationships have formed in neighborhoods and social and civic circles? Civic participation is key to successful health initiatives.

“A lot of parents don’t look beyond the walls of their own home and their immediate family influences,” Sanders said. “Being parents, we typically think of high school and college as being the life stages where external influences play the biggest role. The truth is, it starts A LOT earlier in life.”

3. How easy it is for children to fall behind in cognitive skills early

Kids build important brain connections early in life called neural pathways. These neural pathways strengthen with use, and studies show children acquire varying levels of skills at different development changes.

A child’s early skill development lays the roadmap to learning potential. Experiences of emotions, sights, smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and more provide data to the brain, which releases neurotransmitters, which power these neural pathways. As much as 80% of brain growth happens in the first 3 years.

Primary interventions start at home, data from a Brandon Agency study shows. It identifies 5 fun, powerful, and simple ways families can give children a healthy start.

Maximize love, minimize stress

Children in a relaxed environment in which they feel safe and thrive there.

Talk, sing, and point

Kids learn through songs and examples. Parents can lead these efforts in fun ways.

Count, group, and compare

The ability to categorize and identify items can help lead to self-sufficient decisions.

Explore through movement and play

Exercise and unstructured learning allow children to learn at their own pace.

Read and discuss stories

Reading comprehension gives kids the skill to process information for themselves.

If environmental factors prevent free flow of data, learning development can suffer. Children exposed to fewer new experiences and have fewer opportunities to create neural pathways, some of which won’t develop fully for a decade or two, are at risk of falling behind.

“This is the level where population health really begins,” Sanders said. “Rather than tackle issues after onset, introducing children to healthy experiences and helping them foster quality relationships with authority figures gives a community a stronger base.”

4. Parental and societal support is critical early

Racial and ethnic differences in cognitive-skill acquisition begin to formulate by age 2, widen by age 5, and, by age 17, represent a gap of 3 to 4 years of learning.

An NICHD study of early childcare and youth development tracked progress in academic and social development in first, third, and fifth graders. Researchers determined a child’s parent involvement can help predict levels of problem behaviors and social skills. The higher the parental involvement, the lower the chance for behavior problems. Similar parallels for teacher-student relationships hinge on parental involvement. Those in the community who not only have the child’s best interest, but also can show them ways to a fulfilling life, also factor in.

“That’s what we mean by community,” Sanders said. “It will take more than teachers and parents. Other authority figures in a child’s life have the potential to help them stay on track too, with lifestyle choices, commitment to education, and to good health.”

5. How much marketing CAN impact stages of change

Population health seeks to alter two things: behavior and environment.

Healthcare providers, working with The Brandon Agency, can help by formulating marketing campaigns aimed specifically and sensitively toward people in each stage of intervention and prevention programs. Marketing should offer promotional and strategic support, but also help lead the process.

The Brandon Agency’s research identified barriers marketing professionals face in engaging in population health activities when they try to handle it without assistance:

39%: Lack of time and resources to be involved

25%: Lack of knowledge how to provide support

20%: Lack of support from administration

Providers can encourage screenings (for breast cancer, hypertension, prediabetes and more), raise awareness (of the communities heightened risks of health problems, such as alcoholism, lung cancer, obesity, and more), and provide motivation (through exercise programs, family-based initiatives, risk awareness, and more.)

Consumers hear the same message at multiple points of contact through socio ecological saturation. This helps healthcare organizations inform caregivers and children about population health with activity guides, posters, tip sheets, workshops, videos, and more, through:

  • Barbers and beauticians
  • Early care education
  • Employers
  • Faith-based organizations
  • Government agencies and service providers
  • Health centers and hospitals
  • Homeless shelters
  • Housing developments
  • Libraries
  • Schools

“We have a blue-print,” Sanders said. “We just need to put it to better use and increase awareness that there is a formula to affect change.”