Locating behaviour change in public health practice… some propostions

NICE have recently published their behaviour change guidance http://publications.nice.org.uk/behaviour-change-individual-approaches-ph49 and the British Academy have now released their report on social science interventions in Public Health (press release here http://www.britac.ac.uk/news/news.cfm/newsid/1041  ; report itself here http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/Health_Inequalities.cfm . )

These two events have come almost simultaneously, and they both highlight the importance contribution of social sciences in health. The British Academy report deliberately focused (as we say in our introduction) on non-individual social science and behavioural science contributions whereas the NICE guidance focuses specifically on behaviour change. These two reports complement each other well and the key issue, as we say in the introduction, is for local areas to find public health strategies which hold population and individual measures, policy/regulatory and behaviour change methods, clinical services and health improvement services in balance. A balanced public health strategy is one which uses appropriate methods and tools for the different facets of the public health challenge we face, especially non-communicable disease.

I’ve read the NICE behaviour change guidance twice now, and I’m using it to bring together our various behaviour change intentions and programmes into a strategy as they recommend. This is a helpful and sane document with wise advice and a good framework for commissioners and providers.

On 28th January Public Health England, NICE and the Local Government Association will be holding Evidence into Practice , the first of a series of events seeking to support the introduction of evidence-based practice.  http://www.local.gov.uk/events/-/journal_content/56/10180/5751863/EVENT

I’m taking part in a panel discussion on the day, and I’ve also recently had colleagues from Public Health England spend a morning with me discusing and sharing how behaviour change approaches fit into a public health strategy.

I believe that there are several big challenges in getting behaviour change working effectively in public health programmes and strategies, and the NICE guidance is an enormous step forward, but we have much more still to do.

1. Having a conceptual framework of where behaviour change fits in public health as part of a strategy is a real challenge and no-one has really articulated this nationally yet in a clear and succinct way.

2. Understanding what method to use- do we target automatic processes or conscious ones, do we do population or individual level?

3. Policymakers often seize on one tool or method because it’s the current buzz topic and attracts a lot of scientific and practitioner interest. That doesn’t always make for  or effective strategy.

4. Many public health departments don’t have expert level behaviour science staff, and often the training we have had relies on models of behaviour change which are no longer used by experts in the field. The field has moved on, our training hasn’t.

4. The field itself is still developing – a bit like public health – and so experts and researchers in the field need to be better at communicating with policymakers

All of this leads me to conclude that we need some propositions about how we as public health practitioners take behaviour change forward.  I intend to share these with participants on 28th January.

Locating behaviour change in public health practice: some propositions

I share this because we ourselves are on the journey of working this out. It needs much more work, but we are already starting to use the framework they help us create.

I: Policymakers and commissioners need a clear Context within which Behaviour Change is used

  • The epidemiology of the UK is such that behavioural sciences can make a significant contribution to primary prevention of non-communicable disease, secondary prevention especially self-management and resilience and tertiary prevention (e.g. coping skills for breathlessness in heart failure.) Behaviour change needs to be seen within this context.
  • This contribution is alongside not instead of policy and population measures (like regulation of tobacco etc). Behaviour change is not the answer to our public health challenges. It is a part of the answer
  • A balanced public health strategy will have interventions at policy, environmental, social, sub-population and individual levels (eg the 6 levels of public health action in the Hertfordshire Public Health Strategy taken from Dettels et al,2009 http://slidesha.re/1e4CVzY ) Another way of looking at this is the Health Impact Pyramid https://www.idph.state.ia.us/adper/common/pdf/healthy_iowans/health_pyramid.pdf


Example of how they can   be applied –  Tobacco

Social – changing social norms   about health, e.g. acceptability of binge drinking, acceptability of taking   smoking breaks Behavioural economics, social marketing Young people
Biological – immunisation,   vaccinations, treatments Nicotine replacement therapy and cognitive tools for cravings
Environmental – encouraging green   transport, reducing pollution, changing the public realm Environmental cues, display legislationSmokefree playgrounds
Individual Behavioural – helping individuals to   stop smoking Individual and group behavioural change and support
Legislative –  the smoking ban, legislation on alcohol   sales The ban on smokingLegislation on displays
Structural – policy changes such as   workplace health, school health policies Workplace policiesTobacco control partnerships

II: Policymakers need Clarity of the aims and uses for Behaviour Change

  • Behaviour change can be used at population or individual or sub-population levels. Different theories, approaches and methods work for different settings. Policymakers should be aware of this.
  • Including behavioural science skills (e.g. health psychologists) in your service is essential to get it right . They need links with the academics to keep track of the field. We’ve recognised the need for links between public health practice and academic public health starting with our training and running all through our careers. It’s time behaviour sciences had this parity of esteem.
  • Behaviour change can target “automatic” cognitive/emotive processes (e.g. choice architecture and also eye position tracking on cigarette package warnings) or conscious deliberative ones (e.g. behavioural skills to negotiate safer sex.) You need to be clear which you are using for what, and why

III: Policymakers need Clarity of methods, settings and audiences for Behaviour Change

  • The experts in the field need to work with policymakers to create a framework or architecture within which local areas can understand and roll out behaviour change strategies and methods. A preliminary attempt at this is below

IV: A first step at a ready reckoner for behaviour change tools and methods

A   ready reckoner for behaviour change tools and methods

Population   Level

Group   Level

Individual   Levels



“Conscious” processes



“Conscious” processes



“Conscious” processes

Choice Architecture

Advertising e.g. change4 life


Groupwork for behaviour

Targeted social marketing

Choice Architecture

Health Trainers

We   still have gaps and weaknesses in science and tools across all of these

(i.e. the science is still developing)

I hope this makes sense, and welcome your comments

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