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MU Students Learn from Public Health Campaign Successes and Failures

November 21st, 2011

Story Contact: Emily Martin, (573) 882-3346, martinem@missouri.edu

COLUMBIA, Mo. – A new course at the University of Missouri aims to inform students on how public health campaigns are planned and implemented. Vu Nguyen, Mizzou Advantage postdoctoral fellow and professor of the course, uses real-life examples of health campaigns to demonstrate the successes and failures to his students.

“Many people believe that knowledge is enough to change behaviors and that educating the public is all it takes to influence change,” Nguyen said. “For example, some people may believe, ‘if people only knew how bad an unhealthy behavior is for them, or how good a healthy behavior is for them, then they would change their behavior for the better.’ Unfortunately, that is not the case and it is not that simple.”

These types of generalizations are what Nguyen is trying to teach his students to stay away from when they develop their own health campaigns. As an in-class example, he showed two different public health campaigns for seatbelt use, the “Click-it or Ticket” campaign, and a general crash-test dummy commercial. This comparison revealed that the message of wearing seatbelts to avoid getting a ticket was more successful than the wearing of them to save lives.

Nguyen finds it most effective to teach by giving short lectures and using the majority of class time for group discussions. During the discussions, students evaluate elements of real health campaigns and decide what makes them successful and unsuccessful in terms of changing behaviors, being cost effective and other aspects. Some examples of health campaigns discussed in the class are children’s health, drinking and driving, drug use, smoking, sexual health and physical activity. The lectures and group discussions teach students the skills and creativity they need to create their own public health campaigns, Nguyen said.

“Dr. Nguyen’s class touches not only on the successes and failures of public health campaigns, but it also details the design of these campaigns,” said Jennifer Bogener, a student in Nguyen’s class.

Nguyen is a Mizzou Advantage Fellow, in which he is a part of the One Health/One Medicine initiative of Mizzou Advantage. The Mizzou Advantage aims to increase MU’s visibility and stature in higher education and to strengthen the quality of faculty and students, instructional programs, value of an MU degree, success of grant proposals, United States and Missouri economies and venture-capital investment.

“In order to be successful, public health campaigns need to draw on a number of content areas including effective communication, scientific evidence in support of a particular approach and an understanding of human behavior and culture,” said Lise Saffran, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program. “The course Dr. Nguyen is teaching is a perfect fit for Mizzou Advantage – and for the Master of Public Health Program which is interdisciplinary at its heart.”

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