Health for All: How Everyone in Advertising Can Make a Difference in Health

This year, World Health Day champions the slogan: “My Health, My Right.” Claire Gillis, CEO VML Health, explains how the ad industry can help inspire better healthcare for everyone, everywhere.

April 7 is World Health Day (WHD), a day dedicated to raising awareness of the critical health issues facing the world and galvanizing efforts to address them. This year’s focus is on heath as a human right, in particular the right for everyone to be able to access essential health services. Because believe it or not, in 2024, more than half the world is still missing out on the basics.

For those of us who specialise in health advertising, the theme is a familiar one. So, to mark WHD and explore how our industry can make a contribution to its goals, I thought I’d outline some of the areas where advertising can help close the gaps in health. Spoiler alert: we can all play a part. 

Creativity saves lives.

People often boast that marketing has the power to change the world. Well, in health, we’ve the opportunity to go further: creativity not only changes lives, it saves lives too. That’s a bold claim but it’s one we can support.

In recent years, the ad industry has taken advantage of leaps in technology to create solutions that are starting to improve outcomes in health – levelling-up known disparities and improving experiences for those living with disease. For example, Dogs Without Borders uses rescue dogs to sniff out cancers in remote populations that don’t have diagnostics. It’s helping doctors diagnose and treat cancer sooner and saving lives in the process. It’s a similar story with Buy My Cancer, where NFTs made from cancer cells are funding expensive treatments for rare cancers. And with Inequality You Can’t Ignore, which shines a light on racial disparities in breast cancer, inspiring earlier screening and more equitable care.

Creativity is transforming lives too. Like the app that teaches the blind to visualize sound, the tool that allows people with Parkinson’s to control their socials through facial expressions, or the digital book that helps people with MND retain their voice when they can no longer speak. These are meaningful innovations; creativity that matters.

A revolution in data and tech is gifting us a canvas for creativity that’s bigger than ever before. The opportunity to paint a better picture for health is ours for the taking if we leverage it. With cancer rates increasing  everywhere and non-communicable diseases like diabetes and asthma still accounting for three quarters of all deaths, there’s plenty of big targets for creativity to aim at – and everyone in our industry has the chance to make a dent in them.

Astonishing science.

Let’s be honest, science is outpacing humanity. Medicine and technology are advancing at such lightening speed that health systems can’t keep up and people get left behind. Right now, there are over 2,000 drugs in development for cancer alone, while breakthrough medicines are making giant strides in the treatment of rare diseases, chronic conditions and infectious disease. That progress counts for nothing if new innovation doesn’t reach patients, or if doctors don’t know it’s there.

The equity gaps we see all over the world are, in part, a communications challenge. That’s why the ad industry has a huge role to play in communicating new discoveries to the medical community, and showcasing their value so the right patients can benefit from them. The work we do is vital in helping people find and understand information that supports health-related decisions, whether that’s funding or prescribing new medicines, recognising symptoms or managing lifestyle behaviours. It’s what we’re good at.

In health, medical education, med comms and access teams are unsung heroes that underpin our drive to promote access to healthcare. When we marry those skillsets with creativity, our ability to maximize science and improve health outcomes increases.

Disease Awareness

At the heart of “My Health, My Right” is a person, because fundamentally, health is a human story. When we get ill, it can throw our lives off course and leave us feeling lost or isolated.  That isolation feels even greater if it’s compounded by a lack of awareness.

Disease awareness is an important component of health advertising – whether that’s shining a light on the symptoms of disease, or bringing the health challenges of underserved populations into the spotlight to inspire solutions.

In my experience, working with patient groups to challenge the legal frameworks that block access to healthcare is one of the most rewarding aspects of our work. It’s inspired brilliant creative that’s driving meaningful change. Like The Cancer Currency, which highlighted the value of people with metastatic breast cancer and helped get MBC included in the European Cancer Directive. Or the AI experiment that helped changed a law in Spain, helping people with metastatic cancers get faster access to life-extending medicines. That’s creativity making a difference.

Our industry has a long history of producing awareness campaigns that are transforming understanding of disease and driving better outcomes.  Awesome examples include:

  • The Battle Inside – a game that educates young people about leukaemia.
  • The Art of Self Examination – classical paintings of naked women, adapted into 3D so people can palpate the breasts to look for symtoms of breast cancer.
  • Anne de Gaulle – an airport experience entirely recreated to raise awareness of Down’s syndrome.
  • Protein Kills Us – a movie raising awarness of for phenylketonuria, a rare disease where eating the wrong amount of protein can cause irreversible brain damage.

The AI opportunity

Health is all of us, so communications need to reach the most diverse audience imagineable. Our best chance of achieving that effectively will undoubtedly come through AI. Like every other industry, health uses AI to guide customer journeys and messaging. But it’s also becoming a useful tool in helping us predict what people might be feeling or doing so we can intervene appropriately. Or help us understand motivations behind behaviours to tailor personalized experiences. These behavioural insights – coupled with the advantages of machine learning, marketing automation and programmatic advertising – could make all the difference in crafting solutions to health’s biggest challenges.

Health is awash with data. How we make the most of it, through tech and creativity, will determine how quickly we can make strides towards access to healthcare for all.

It’s a big challenge and a big opportunity. What’s more, everyone in our industry can make a mark on it…because, ultimately, health is for all.