February is our shortest month of the year and also the month officially acknowledged almost everywhere as Heart Health Awareness Month. Then we all turn the calendar page and glide over to March, the official month of Liver Health Awareness, Disability Awareness, Ovarian Cancer Awareness, Red Cross Awareness worldwide – and many other causes. My niggling question remains: do these assorted official days/weeks/months of awareness-raising actually help to raise awareness out there?
Regular Heart Sisters readers will already know that I’ve begun to ask this question more often ever since the American Heart Association (AHA) national survey that revealed women’s awareness of heart disease (a diagnosis, by the way, that kills more women each year than ALL forms of cancer combined) has actually declined over the past decade.
Over half of the women surveyed, for example, were unaware that chest pain is a symptom of heart attack. Think about that for a moment. That’s a significantly worse result than 10 years ago. We’re going backwards when it comes to women’s awareness of heart disease. The AHA itself described the results of their own awareness survey as “a decade of lost ground.”
Despite many years of national Heart Month festivities, Red Dress fashion shows, designated Go Red for Women days, downtown buildings or bridges lit up with red lights, #HeartMonth hashtags all over social media, countless interviews with cardiologists on daytime talk shows, patient narratives all over the place, and a big bump in organizational fundraising all month long, women are NOT apparently getting the message that heart disease is our biggest health threat. That’s an astonishing result. See also: When a Red Dress Just Isn’t Enough to Raise Awareness
If the goal of naming a specific day, week or month is to actually raise awareness of a cause or an issue among the general public, we now know that whatever we’ve been doing is simply not working.
The national survey that the American Heart Association undertook is a standard best practice strategy among my colleagues in the public relations field. During decades of my former PR career in corporate, government and non-profit sectors, I learned that it’s not enough to host an event or launch a campaign. Behind the scenes, we were always busiest when evaluating the after-effects of every event or campaign launch. In other words, what were the ultimate results of that campaign? Did we bring more visitors to our website? Did we sell more widgets? Did these results reflect evidence of behaviour or attitudinal changes?
The AHA survey did help to answer one important question: “Are women more or less aware of heart disease now after all of our awareness-raising efforts?” – but it was a bombshell of an answer that I simply didn’t see coming. For the cringe-worthy news summary, read the AHA’s Top Things to Know: Ten-Year Differences in Women’s Awareness Related to Coronary Heart Disease
As all of my former Canadian Public Relations Society colleagues know, there are a number of important steps in professional public awareness campaigns, based on what we used to call the R.A.C.E. model of Research, Analysis, Communication and Evaluation.
In my own case, I know from tracking both reader comments and article traffic stats that my target readership here includes both women who are already diagnosed with heart disease (and/or their family members) plus “newbies” who are afraid that their symptoms might be heart-related. These are two very different groups, with very different personal needs. “How Does It Really Feel to Have a Heart Attack?“, for example, is the most-read blog article on my site – with over 2.6 million views since I wrote it back in 2009. These are largely what I call my “3 o’clock in the morning newbies” who wake up with frightening new symptoms and immediately go online, where Dr. Google can direct them to this post.
The general public, by the way, is NOT among my target readership, as clarified in the paragraphs below.
Among heart disease awareness-raising campaigns, the analysis piece of the R.A.C.E. model may be the weakest link, because most seem to have already decided up front that information is what women need most.
Yet as the latest AHA National Survey clearly found, women are actually less informed than they’d been 10 years earlier despite a relative avalanche of information, facts, statistics and data shared over that decade by both heart-related organizations and patient advocates like me. In my own case, I too have been guilty of intuitively believing that the way to inform women is to pile on more information. More info, more facts, more stats, more data. But as Florida researchers wrote in Stop Raising Awareness Already, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:
“Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness.”
For heart health awareness campaigns like Heart Month, the AHA national survey was the mother of all post-campaign evaluations. The survey was aimed at the general public, a group of women who are not necessarily heart patients. Not yet. But the general public is actually the least likely to pay much attention to what I or the American Heart Association or anybody else trying to raise women’s awareness of heart disease are saying.
If we could get the needle to move within this general public demographic, that could be promising. But at this point, that needle is not only unmovable – it’s broken.
I wrote here (as a woman with complete disregard for this topic during most of my adult life – until my own heart attack) that women are no more likely to be interested in learning about heart disease than they are in learning about lupus or epilepsy or any other condition they believe to be irrelevant to them or to their families.
In other words, heart disease did not matter to me until it happened to me.
Some days, frankly, I wonder why I’m still at it. The shocking conclusions of that AHA national survey have been demoralizing. When I first started this blog in 2009, freshly-graduated from my Mayo Clinic patient advocacy training, I was so excited about sharing what I’d learned there with women here.
I too was a believer back then.
I too wore a red dress back then.
Yet red dresses do not raise public awareness. They just make us feel like we’re doing something.
Meanwhile, I’m weary from years of lobbying in vain for changes that I believe are seriously important to women (and men!) – yet by now seem truly futile (changes like implementing mandatory reporting of our cardiac misdiagnoses, or changing the deliberately hurtful name of heart FAILURE, among many other issues).
I’ve lately been toying with the notion of starting up a new website, in fact – one that is very different from writing about heart disease, and indeed instead something purely joyful – like balcony roses for the novice gardener – a concept that I’ve only recently fallen in love with. UPDATE: It’s here! – at The Novice Rose Gardener
And yes, there’s a special month designated to celebrate roses. Of course, there is! Since 1959, June has been acknowledged as National Rose Month. But without all the info, the facts, the stats, the data.
Just slowing down to smell the roses. . .
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: My book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ reads like the“Best Of” Heart Sisters blog archives. You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (if you use their code HTWN , you can save 30% off the list price).
Q: I’m out of fresh ideas to make Heart Month messaging stick. Suggestions?