The Cultural Context of Health Messages — a Myanmar Case Study

By Alexandra Sassoon, Assistant Account Executive – September 28, 2015

There is nothing more awkward, in my opinion, than teaching a group of young girls how to use sanitary napkins — especially when they have never seen one before.

This occurred to me on a hot summer’s day, as I stood at the front of a small audience of women in a traditional long house belonging to an ethnic minority group called the Wa in eastern Shan State, Myanmar. The purpose of my visit was to execute a health education initiative in several small villages to promote proper hygiene, sanitation and preventative health.

The project, which was supported by the Clinton Global Initiative University, appeared flawless on paper: original, specific, measurable, and tailored for months by me and other members of my team to deliver the products we had determined would be most desired by the Wa villages. In the weeks before the trip, our group collected piles of donations: hand soap, bandages, mosquito nets and dental care products. It was everything that our undergraduate degrees in public health had convinced us that these people would need, given their remote location and limited access to basic health materials.

But in that moment, amidst the confused stares and foreign products in hand, it became clear that our project’s missing link was also its most important: communicating health messages within a cultural context.

‘Cultural context’ is the idea that all behaviors, actions, and opportunities should be considered from the perspective of a given population, taking their experiences, traditions, beliefs and values into account. How important is the practice of dental hygiene if a culture doesn’t consider a bright, white smile attractive? How should nicotine patches be marketed to populations who relate cigarette-smoking with higher social status? Will mosquito nets be used properly in an impoverished community worried about starvation?

At dna, our priority is to communicate the right messages to the right people. Be it through patient advocacy groups to showcase the newest therapy to a wide audience or through a targeted social media campaign, we strive to ensure that the information we deliver reaches the appropriate audience, while specifically tailoring our messages to fit the needs of both our clients and the consumers.

Our ability to communicate the attributes of each unique health solution of our clients to different audiences has put a new spin on the classroom term ‘cultural context.’ A product is merely a product, not a solution, if the messages are not communicated appropriately to those who need it most. By contextualizing populations and their needs, we are better able to assist our clients in delivering services to improve — and save — lives. And hopefully, we’ll avoid some of that awkwardness in the process.