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How Are Governments Integrating Behavioral Science in Public Health?

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How Are Governments Integrating Behavioral Science in Public Health? Graphic from the report cover of the Behavioral science around the world report. Copyright: The World Bank and World Health Organization

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of behavioral science in public health gained unprecedented attention. As nations grappled with the complexities of containing the virus and safeguarding public health, the importance of better understanding and addressing the behavioral components of health became evident.

Central to this discussion is the wider recognition that public health is not merely about treating diseases but about fostering healthy communities and societies. By drawing upon insights from anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, and other social sciences and disciplines, behavioral science offers a people-centered approach to public health, rooted in understanding people and communities' perspectives and experiences, and barriers to change.

The recently released joint WHO and World Bank report, Behavioral Science Around the World report, third volume, highlights how governments are integrating behavioral science to address public health. The report—which includes insights from 26 countries and shows how they tackle health challenges—identifies three models of integration.

Model 1. Countries with units embedded in health ministries.

The first model involves units directly integrated within ministries of health. Countries such as United States, United Kingdom, and Australia have long-established units embedded in their health ministries, allowing for specialized management of behavioral science projects and close alignment with national public health strategies. More recently, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and the Slovak Republic established behavioral science units in their health ministries. This integration ensures that behavioral insights contribute directly to the public health priorities of the country, contributing to the achievement of priority health outcomes.

Model 2. Countries with units outside health ministries.

The second model features units housed within broader government agencies, rather than specifically within health ministries. Examples from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, France, India, Japan, and South Africa illustrate this approach, where units are typically placed within ministries of economics, finance, or innovation. These units address a wide range of policy issues, including but not limited to public health and integrate behavioral insights across various sectors, building capacity, momentum and showcasing the value of this approach in health and beyond.

Model 3. Countries where behaviorally informed work in health is done with third-party support.

The third model describes units that function as independent entities, commissioned by governments to apply behavioral science principles. This approach allows governments to leverage external behavioral science expertise, which operate outside of traditional government structures. Uruguay, Qatar, Ethiopia, and Mexico outsourced behavioral science for health to specialized units, ensuring flexibility and access to diverse expertise. This approach incorporates behavioral science into public policy, emphasizing collaboration with non-governmental experts to enhance public health outcomes while building national capacity.

The report highlights the need for practitioners to adopt systematic approaches that ensure the use of behavioral science theory, methods, and approaches from the conceptualization of needs to the evaluation of the impact on human behavior. It is key to tailor interventions to diverse populations and contexts, recognizing that one-size-fits-all solutions are often ineffective. This was further highlighted by the WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during the World Health Assembly 2024 opening remarks when he stated the importance of behavioral science efforts to be more systematic and better integrated into national health strategies. 

The integration of behavioral science into public health policies becomes increasingly imperative  as countries strive to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals—often through  resolutions, such as Behavioural Science for Better Health (WHA76.7) or through the UN2.0 quintet of change—and ensure universal access to healthcare.

By leveraging behavioral insights, governments and public health organizations can drive meaningful and empowering behavior change, ultimately engaging and transforming the health and well-being of communities worldwide. The WHO and the World Bank have increasingly relied on behavioral science to improve health interventions, whether it is to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs), or improve maternal health.

There is a complementary role of behavioral science in shaping the future of public health. A concerted effort is required to bridge the gap between theory and practice, ensuring that insights on behaviors are not only sought and obtained but are also systematically used to design and implement policies and programs that address the complex health challenges of our time.

 

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Zeina Afif

Senior Social Scientist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

Elena Altieri

Unit Head, Behavioural Insights Unit, WHO

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