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Leaders in the Western Pacific look to behavioural sciences to improve health outcomes

GENEVA, Switzerland – In the Western Pacific region behavioural sciences are being recognized, and integrated, in strategies to improve health outcomes. Leaders at the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Committee for the Western Pacific’s seventy-fourth session (held 16 to 20 October 2023) endorsed two frameworks which embrace behavioural sciences within both communication for health and strengthening health security.

Alongside other health challenges, the Western Pacific Region confronts public health emergencies from wide-ranging hazards such as emerging infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance, extreme weather events and earthquakes. These threats, along with knowledge gained from the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforce the value of investing in health security and advancing comprehensive, integrated and forward-looking approaches to address challenges and improve health outcomes.

Inclusion of behavioural sciences as part of regional health approaches builds on substantial work by the WHO Regional Office for Western Pacific, working closely with the Behavioural Insights Unit at headquarters, to advance the use of behavioural insights to inform effective policies and interventions.

Communicating for health impact 

To communicate effectively to influence behaviours, it is necessary to pay attention to factors that shape how people perceive, interpret and react to messages delivered. Behavioural insights (BI) can help better understand these influencing factors to inform health-related communication. WHO Regional Office for Western Pacific’s Communication for Health (C4H) approach brings together varied theories, tools and techniques, including from social and behavioural sciences, storytelling and evidence-based planning, monitoring and learning – to develop communication intended to support improving health-related behaviours.

The C4H approach underpins the regional Communication for Health resolution (WPR/RC74.R4), which endorses the Regional Action Framework on Communication for Health: A vision for using communication to improve public health in the Western Pacific Region (WPR/RC74/7). This framework guides member states on applying C4H to improve knowledge, change attitudes and shift behaviours for improved health outcomes. As outlined in the Framework, the C4H approach incorporates behavioural insights, including applying behavioural sciences, to understand barriers and drivers of health-related behaviours. Strategies are designed to address individual, socio-cultural and environmental influences.

“The Regional Action Framework on communication for health should help countries to apply this set of principles and practices that make the communication interventions that we do much more likely to deliver the sort of health outcomes that we want,” says Olivia Lawe Davies, WHO regional office for the Western Pacific’s communications manager. “Bringing together data, behavioural insights, the use of measurement and evaluation and really making sure that we have a robust approach to this area of public health work.”

The C4H approach builds on work done by WHO, member states and partners to advance the use of behavioural sciences, in line with the Behavioural Sciences for Better Health resolution (WHA76.7) adopted by the World Health Assembly in May 2023. C4H begins by asking questions about why people behave in a certain way, what are the cultural or social influences for change, and how these can inform interventions – then testing to further refine actions.

Asia Pacific health security action framework

The region’s health leaders also adopted the Health Security resolution (WPR/RC74.R3) endorsing the Asia Pacific Health Security Action Framework (WPR/RC74/5) designed to engage health and non-health actors to support prevention, preparedness, readiness and response to multi-hazard public health emergencies. This includes strengthening health systems resilience at subnational, national and regional levels.

This health security framework points to behavioural sciences as a priority across a broad range of action areas. Information and understanding regarding local behavioural, social and environmental contexts are noted as important at various stages, from risk assessment to informing interventions.

For example, risk communication is essential during health emergencies to ensure accurate information, reduce anxiety and influence acceptance of public health advice. The Asia Pacific Health Security Action Framework points to C4H, and behavioural sciences specifically, to understand why certain behaviours occur and factors influencing whether people will follow public health guidance. It also advises that behavioural sciences and social considerations are among priorities when engaging with groups and communities at risk and with vulnerabilities.

To ensure capacity, the framework cites behavioural sciences as a priority in defining and developing the health workforce. It also calls for supporting behavioural science research that can both inform interventions aiming to shift health-related behaviours and enhance people-centred health services.

Supporting implementation

The WHO regional office for Western Pacific is continuing its ongoing work to advance behavioural sciences’ use and support implementation of these Frameworks. This includes working with WHO country offices, government, local organizations and communities to strength capacity, provide technical support, and innovate new approaches to achieve progress.



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