We recently celebrated World Health Day on 7 April. It’s an opportunity to focus attention on some of the remarkable efforts of governments in our region to communicate with their citizens using platforms like Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Like many other things during the pandemic, public health campaigns had to move online to reach people at scale with crucial updates.

Digital health promotion is by no means new. But for many governments in the Asia Pacific, it was the first time they were using the Facebook family of apps as a marketing channel for public health promotion at scale. With mounting pressure on healthcare systems, they had to react quickly to contain infection rates on the ground while communicating credible information to citizens as fast as possible.

We saw a number of governments in the region rapidly test and learn different approaches to digital health promotion. From launching bots for Messenger to leveraging free advertising credits to drive people to health information from trusted sources — they led the charge on innovative ways of harnessing technology to fight the pandemic.

Responding to a global crisis

Early in the pandemic, messaging emerged as a key public engagement channel. The Singapore government was among the first to develop an official Gov.sg WhatsApp channel which now has over 1.2 million opt-in users. It continues to provide up-to-date information on the spread of COVID-19 in the country, along with relevant details on infection control measures.

Our teams also worked with the Philippines Department of Health to launch a Messenger bot to share updates on COVID-19. Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control, which has been lauded for its pandemic response, also launched a COVID-19 bot on Messenger — both to serve as a local channel and an international channel sharing the latest updates with Taiwanese diaspora around the world.

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All of this happened in partnership with health experts, third-party developers, creative agencies, as well as government and public advocacy teams. In fact, even our internal creative teams joined meetings with departments of health to help apply creative best practices to health updates. Some of this early work led out of Asia Pacific and has now turned into a global framework for pandemic response.

Moving forward with the power of innovation

This year, providing effective and accurate vaccine communications is top of mind for public health authorities. As we transition into the vaccine confidence and access phase of the pandemic response, governments continue to leverage digital platforms to get the word out about COVID-19 vaccinations.

As vaccine access and eligibility is different across the region, we are also seeing governments develop more customised messaging experiences. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Health in Indonesia reached out to discuss building a WhatsApp chatbot to support their vaccine rollout to health workers. The world’s first WhatsApp vaccine chatbot was built in nine days. Health workers were able to use this two-way messaging chatbot to select location, date, time, and get people to register for vaccinations. Within the first five days, 500,000 healthcare workers had accessed the bot.

Similarly, the Indian government built the world’s largest WhatsApp chatbot last year with the goal of sharing authentic news, expert information and official updates. They also established MyGov Corona Hub. They are now updating the chatbot to support their massive vaccine rollout program by incorporating vaccine-specific FAQs and will launch more features soon.

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As we collaborated on these campaigns, we also saw the value of personalised advertising in public health promotion strategies. Studies have shown that the effectiveness of the advertisements may be greatly improved by targeting messages based on sociodemographic characteristics.

For example, as schools and colleges reopened in Pakistan, its Ministry of Health wanted to inform parents, teachers, and students about the precautionary measures needed to enable a safe environment for studying.

The MoH created a short animated video showcasing steps to stay safe in school. They utilised a combination of placements, including Facebook and Instagram Feed and Stories amongst others, to maximise opportunities for visibility.

The simple animations, catchy jingle, and easy to understand language used in the video helped keep the broad nationwide audience engaged. Key messages about washing hands and steering clear of touching the eyes and mouth were delivered within the first few seconds. Captions made it easy to grasp the messages even with sound off.

The campaign helped reach over 13 million people and led to increased awareness of health safety measures during COVID-19.

The role of startups in plugging technical gaps

There are many such examples from the region. I’m truly impressed by how Asian governments have adapted their technological capabilities and innovated relatively quickly to reach their citizens at scale. In the process, we have all learned the power of collaboration. I’m inspired by the broad ecosystem that has sprung up to tackle technical gaps and health service needs, especially for underserved communities. Small technology startups and developer businesses have moved fast to meet public needs, iterating as they go, in partnership with public health officials.

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I want to share the story of Amio, a free Messenger chatbot created by three Kiwi doctors to address questions and bust myths about COVID-19 for communities in New Zealand and Australia. In the first month, over 250,000 messages were exchanged. Another example is a startup called Reach52, which focused on providing affordable healthcare to underserved communities. They moved quickly to build a COVID-19 Information and Symptom Checker on the Messenger platform to help curb misinformation. In the first week alone, their solution reached over 6,500 people from rural communities across the Philippines and Cambodia.

It is important to reflect on these stories as they help us learn more about the kind of public health messages that work well, where we can improve, and how we can tackle future public health crises together.

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