COVID-19: Is there space for disease awareness campaigns right now?

Collectively we’ve never cared about our health as much as we do now. Over the past few months we’ve come to analyse every cough and headache, scroll obsessively though epidemiology statistics and sign off emails “stay healthy”. But the news cycle, which now rarely deviates from COVID-19 coverage, has swallowed up opportunities for raising awareness of other health conditions.

Awareness days, weeks and months are a key time to spotlight certain conditions and disease; research and patient support organisations can fundraise, patients can share their experiences of living with a condition and information on signs and symptoms is shared widely to promote early diagnosis.

Research from the University of Oregon shows that early Breast Cancer Awareness Months resulted in diagnoses spiking every November after October events, however this effect only lasted for a few years. Other objectives for campaigns are notoriously hard to pin down. Whether you’re counting the number of people who may have been reached via news media circulations or social media impressions, it's difficult to gauge the impact of your activities. While campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge have been successful in bringing little-known diseases to public consciousness, these have proven to be the exception rather than the rule.

Forgoing quantity for quality

The most tangible way to demonstrate wide-ranging impact of a campaign has been through media coverage. Placements in print publications and radio and television spots have been able to guarantee an audience of thousands, if not millions. But right now, unless a story is centred on COVID or is COVID-adjacent, it simply won’t run.

In accepting that “raising awareness” isn’t a feasible measure of success, it’s important to consider how best to support the patient community. Social distancing has had a wide-ranging effect across the care continuum; halting clinical trials, impeding the manufacturing and distribution of medicine and limiting the care that many people are receiving.

By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, industry can reassure patients that our commitment to care is unwavering. Organisations have invested in creating COVID-19 resources that cover everything from the practicalities of travelling to care centres to emotional support during periods of isolation. Sharing content that resonates during a difficult time will offer a sense of continuity and solidarity to patients and their caregivers.

Taking it online

While we’re all spending our time glued to the internet, it can be difficult to cut through the noise. This is where you can benefit from a targeted approach.

Google and YouTube offer functionality that ensures your content gets in front of people looking for it. Allocating some of the budget earmarked for novelty pins on boosting carefully created content will result in more meaningful engagement with the patient community. Even without paid promotion, you can increase visibility by optimising your content through simple SEO techniques like utilising effective keywords and spending time on your meta description.

On social platforms too, small investments in promoting content can start conversations and build relationships online. Here it helps to know your audience well and set your targeting parameters carefully. The opposite of this advice remains true, however. If your resources don’t offer a benefit to the community, liking or sharing third-party content would be more appropriate at this time.

Just remember that social media is designed to start conversations and right now people have a lot of questions. While standardised response matrixes can be a quick and effective tool in the ‘normal’ world. During a crisis, a more personalised and empathetic response can make a world of difference.

So, is there space for disease awareness campaigns right now?

Yes. May, which previously represented a key opportunity for diseases as varied as cystic fibrosis, bladder cancer, lupus, and Huntington’s disease, has morphed into “COVID-19 Awareness Month”. The domination of one disease has come at the detriment of many others, and at a time when patient communities need more support than ever.

We have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with patient communities and our approach needs to be careful and considered. As in most areas of life, there is a ‘new normal’ when it comes to disease awareness campaigns, and this will continue long after lockdown is lifted.

Written by Emma Purdy, Account Director, Madano Healthcare.

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