National Health Observances (NHO) are specific months, weeks, or days dedicated to furthering public understanding of the risks and severity of certain diseases. In 1984, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) began compiling and publishing health observance dates, and since then, many organizations have created NHOs. Observances in the month of November include awareness for health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer, and have been put under the umbrella of Movember and No-Shave November. Although NHOs do allow various health issues to receive attention, no evidence has been found to prove the economic benefits or successes of NHOs, which is why the ODPHP should consider different solutions to raise awareness of global health issues.
“When you think about awareness days and start to look at them, you see there’s next to no evidence on their impact,” said John W. Ayers, a research professor at the San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health, in a prominent interview with CBS News. “We have no idea if they’re working.”
Ayers states that NHOs are easy to implement, and while some have big advertising budgets, others spend close to nothing on advertising and awareness. However, there hasn’t been a way to evaluate the effectiveness of NHOs, and many unsuccessful ones with low public impacts have been allowed to continue unchallenged. Some observances aren’t even related to charitable fundraising, meaning that some corporations exploit the charitable nature of these events without providing any support for non-profits that fundraise for certain diseases.
However, money is only a part of the reason why NHOs exist. Like an anniversary or birthday, having a time set aside in the calendar gives organizations assurance that the disease in question will draw attention. At its core, the goal of an awareness month is to bring attention to a particular health problem by providing information and shedding light on the specific challenges the type of disease presents.
The problem is, awareness months fail to accomplish their main goal to educate, and, in their current state, don’t even come close to providing the public with necessary information. Awareness months in their current state only succeed at informing people nationwide about the existence of different diseases and health issues, and they fail at encouraging the nation and the world to take action to help people suffering from these medical conditions.
Another issue with NHOs is that they only bring awareness to health-related topics on certain months or days, many of which are occupied by multiple other NHOs. This causes most health issues to be ignored, even ones that especially need to be destigmatized or brought to public attention. Last month, a group of students at IHS realized that sexual assault issues had an observance that occurs in April, and they saw that no effort had ever been taken at IHS to raise awareness of this very relevant issue. By making the issue prominent, they were able to spread awareness about this important issue.
NHOs have existed for over three decades, and their popularity is still rising. The effectiveness and success of the efforts are lacking, however, and we need an improvement in the way we respond and act to help individuals dealing with serious illnesses—after all, people are strengthened by action, empowered by knowledge, and sustained by community. Meaningless showings of support during a single day in a year do next to nothing to help sufferers of diseases, and while NHOs are a great concept, we are effectively using them to accomplish next to nothing.