Originally published in a slightly different format by Devex
Visit WHO’s website (www.who.int) and directly off the home page is a list of over 280 health topics addressed by the agency. They cover a number of diseases you would expect, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, yellow fever, dengue, as well as a number of conditions you might not, including hearing loss, sunburn, passive smoking, and cellular phones. It’s these latter topics that prompt the question above, and more specifically, this question:
Would it make sense for WHO to –at a minimum– create a second website devoted to topics of personal health and wellness, as opposed to the broader, and in many ways more serious, global health topics of its current site?
No matter what the topic, it’s always difficult for an organization (and its website) to have both scientific and popular credibility simultaneously. That’s probably particularly true when it comes to matters of health, a topic that is as complex as it is personal. The public and researchers use different vocabularies, are seeking different levels of certitude, and are interested in applying what they learn in very different ways as well.
If WHO were to divide and differentially curate its information between two different sites, one attuned for the general public and personal health, and another to researchers and practitioners of public health, it might find more interest, acceptance, and use from both audiences.
A change of style
WHO’s current site does not have a very contemporary appearance. The home page is quite text-heavy, with over 1,700 words (roughly a page and a half of single-spaced text) and over 50 links (not including navigation). A new site could employ a more engaging format with fewer stories, larger graphics, scrolling pages, and more. A site like this might be more appealing to younger viewers, precisely those to target for changes in behavior as opposed to those in need of treatment.
The new site might look like this:
- Less de-scriptive (statistics and programs) than the current site, and far more pre-scriptive and pro-scriptive (do this / don’t do that).
- Less technical terminology; more commonly used words. Cut instead of laceration, bruise instead of contusion, shortness of breath instead of dyspnea, etc.
- More heavily focused on the positive results of individual behavioral change as opposed to the advances of collective public health.
- More story-based to encourage readers to associate with the experience of other individuals –and then emulate their personal health improvement activities.
- Oriented primarily to younger adults; people who are comfortable gathering advice on the web and who are for the first time in their lives the principal agents of their own health.
Why would this approach –hosting separate websites for public health and personal health– work well for WHO?
- To begin with, there’s WHO’s preeminent global standing. The current site receives about 200,000 hits every day and is the eighth most visited health-related site in the world. [ 1 ]
- In addition, its connection to the UN and the fact that it operates both somewhat independently and based on science rather than politics, are probably high-positives for most people.
- WHO already has a robust social media following, probably second only to UNICEF, in the field of global health. [ 2 ]
- National health sites like the CDC in America, ANSM in France, the NHS in the UK, etc. have opted instead to go with a portal approach, subdividing their core site across multiple diseases rather than hosting separate sites. This concentrates their content but dilutes the search engine optimization for these topics.
- By contrast, a new WHO site that is more tightly focused on a smaller subset of health topics could use search engine optimization to attract more web traffic. Some 72 percent of internet users look for health information online and 77 percent of them begin their research on search engines, according to a September 2012 Pew survey. [ 3 ]
There is no doubt that this approach is threading a needle; trading on WHO’s high standing and respect but packaging the messaging in more casual language and more contemporary design.
Pros and Cons
Here are three reasons in favor of a second site:
- A site more tightly focused on a smaller subset of these health topics could be optimized, through SEO, to attract more web traffic and be viewed by more people. The reason that matters is because “59% of adults in the U.S. look online for health information.” [ 3 ] And that was in 2010 so it would not be surprising if that percentage were higher today and if people outside the US relied similarly on the internet for health information.
- There seems to a spreading distrust in institutions, collectively referred to as the establishment, (and not just in the United States), of whom WHO is certainly a part. Operating for 68 years and a special agency of the United Nations, with a budget including pledges of more than $4 billion annually [ 4 ], WHO certainly is the establishment. To the extent then that WHO could appear to be somewhat less a part of the establishment, its information, perversely, might actually be taken more seriously by more people. A separate, second website might be a path to such wider acceptance.
- WHO’s current site does not have a very contemporary appearance. The home page is quite text-heavy, with over 1,700 words (roughly a page and a half of single-spaced text) and over 50 links (not including navigation). A new site could employ a more engaging format with fewer stories, larger graphics, scrolling pages, and more. A site like this might be more appealing to younger viewers, precisely those to target for changes in behavior as opposed to those in need of treatment.
In contrast, here are two reasons not to create second site:
- The obvious objection is that a second site will require additional effort and resources for programming, editorial, and design. Even if the new site’s content were just less technically worded articles rewritten from the main site, care would have to be taken to make sure that the new, summary-like content was not misleading or incomplete.
- There are no guarantees. In fact, the site could be dubbed ‘WHO-lite’ and be taken seriously by neither the intended nor the current audience, and lessen WHO’s overall credibility.
Do it. Leave the current site unchanged, but create the new site and carefully track its influence and effect, not just its page-views. WHO’s mission is so critical that arguably it actually has an obligation to try new approaches and become more effective.
If the new site fails, a hit to credibility, if any, would be minimal and brief. If it succeeds, WHO should marry this effort with a more robust social media campaign and wider participation in events that reach audiences perhaps more concerned with their own health than with global health. Dr. Sania Nishtar, one of the six candidates vying to become the new Director-General of WHO next July, put it this way in her New Vision for WHO and 10 Pledges for Action:
I believe there is great potential in harnessing digital technology
and social media for health behavior change,
especially when coupled with knowledge management
and the right partnerships. [ 5 ]
[ 3 ] Pew Internet Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/health-fact-sheet/
[ 4 ] http://www.who.int/about/finances-accountability/budget/RC_PPB_2018-2019-en.pdf?ua=1 See page 3. Programme budget for 2016-2017 = $4,340.4 million; for 2018-2019 = $4,659.7 million.