Behavioural science centre stage at WHO

Ella Rhodes reports on developments at the World Health Organisation.

In an effort to better embed knowledge from the behavioural sciences into its work, the World Health Organisation has launched a new initiative – bringing together academics and experts from a range of behavioural sciences. After an initial two-year incubation period the WHO hopes to improve how behavioural science knowledge is factored into the planning and design of much of its work. 

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted both the value of public health and the importance of considering individual behaviour and decision-making when designing public health interventions. While the WHO has long included behavioural science in some of its work, the new initiative aims to take stock of where behavioural science is already being used, where it might be used to better effect, and mechanisms to include it throughout the organisation’s work. 

So far the WHO has brought together a team of 21 experts in a Technical Advisory Group which includes experts in using insights from behavioural science in public health, including psychologist Professor Susan Michie (University College London); those with experience using behavioural and social sciences in government settings; and those who have set up behavioural science advisory groups within organisations. Over the next two years, while the initiative is in its incubation phase, this group and staff from the WHO are planning to find a way to use behavioural and social insights and science globally, in low-to-middle income countries and higher-income countries, targeting a range of public health issues in a number of different settings.  

Michie said there had never been a greater need for countries to work together. ‘This is a great opportunity to bring behavioural science and public health expertise together across disciplines and countries to develop a strong presence and impact on a global stage.’ 

One of the first activities of the new central unit within WHO has been to commission a review of the application of behavioural insights and sciences within the WHO, to help develop concrete goals for the future of the project. Elena Altieri, Technical Officer at the WHO, told me that while there were already good examples of the use of behavioural science in many programmes within the organisation – in sexual and reproductive health, vaccinations, HIV and AIDS for example – the WHO’s vision for this new programme of work was much broader.

‘The wave of public health we are going through really demands us, as a Global Public Health Organisation, to really look much more closely at individual decision-making and the impact it can have on individual health outcomes and community health outcomes. Our vision is that of a WHO where every single product, initiative, policy, set of guidelines, report, or programme that is planned and designed by WHO teams has at some point included a discussion about behavioural dimensions. What are the behavioural lenses that we can apply to a given challenge? Do we have data to actually understand the problem from a behavioural point of view? Do we know all we need to know to be able to tackle those barriers, those biases, those intrinsic and extrinsic influences that will eventually determine whether specific recommendations are taken up?’ 

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