HEALTHY LIVING

Why [Insert Health Condition Here] Awareness Days Aren't So Great

04/21/2015 11:16 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015
Ana Abejon via Getty Images

Did you know that April is National Autism Awareness Month, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Month and Women's Eye Health and Safety Month? And that National Infertility Awareness Week and Air Quality Awareness Week are coming up?

In 2014, nearly 200 health awareness days, weeks or months took place in the United States, but is all this "awareness" really making us any healthier?

That's the question posed by two public health experts in a new study published April 16 in the American Journal of Public Health.

After reviewing the existing literature on the impact of health awareness days, the researchers concluded these initiatives didn't seem to be doing more than just drawing attention to issues.

"Awareness is not a bad thing, it’s just not sufficient to improve population health," Dr. Jonathan Purtle, a public health professor at Drexel University and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email.

Purtle explains that the problem is that it's often difficult for the people who need it most to make the healthy choices these awareness days promote. Members of very low-income family probably can't make many changes to improve their health based on awareness alone, especially if the environment they live in doesn't support those changes.

"Our society is structured in ways that make it very difficult to lead healthy lives, especially if you’re poor," Purtle said. "People have free will, and awareness can inform what they do, but the choices they make, and the extent to which they are ‘healthy,’ are significantly influenced by their level of wealth and the social and physical environments in which they live and work."

However, the researchers aren't suggesting we do away with these holidays altogether.

A better way would be to devote resources to events that raise awareness around concrete issues that can be improved with specific policy changes, according to Purtle. Changing public policies might actually benefit those lower-income families who may not have the resources to act on their new awareness of a health issue alone.

"Awareness days can have very positive impacts, in my opinion, if they raise awareness around specific policy issues and advocate for policy change," Purtle said, "not just individual change."

Study co-author Leah Roman, MPH, agreed that approaches that over-emphasize the role of individual responsibility for health may not be the most effective way to go.

"We respect and value the passion, time, and effort that organizers and participants contribute to awareness days," Roman told HuffPost. "And because we do, we want to make sure that their efforts are directed towards an intervention that will actually bring about meaningful change."

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