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Health communication and public health messaging - commissioning brief


Published: 12 April 2022

Version: 1.0 March 2022

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The NIHR is commissioning research into the most effective forms of health communication and public health messaging to use during a period of infectious disease/pandemic. This call is not limited to COVID-19 patients and studies should be relevant to any infectious disease health communication and public health messaging.

The call aims to support robustly designed studies with the potential to improve health outcomes for patients, the public and health and social care services, as well as reducing inequalities. We are interested in potential impacts on whole populations, but relevant populations or sub-groups may also be studied, based on wider determinants of health such as ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, gender or other social markers. For all proposals, applicants should clearly state the utility of the outcomes and the mechanisms by which they will inform future health, public health and social care policy and practice.
We anticipate that a range of projects in size and scope will be commissioned. Studies may include evidence syntheses, studies evaluating interventions, including trials, quasi- and natural experimental evaluations, and feasibility and pilot studies for these. We welcome applications for linked studies (e.g., pilot + main evaluation, evidence syntheses + modelling). Secondary analyses of existing epidemiological data and/or impact modelling studies may also be funded. In all cases a strong justification for the chosen design and methods must be made.


Whilst this is not a call for specifically COVID-19 related research, the experience of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns may have stimulated interventions and learning that would be generalizable to other infectious diseases.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of clear public health messaging and effective communication between the government, the media and the public in regard to managing outbreaks of infectious disease. These aspects of health communication are necessary for promoting positive health behaviours and the uptake of preventative measures which are, in turn, essential for reducing transmission and infection rates during a period of infectious disease outbreak.

Understanding the most effective ways to communicate rapidly changing health information and ensuring trust and compliance is vital for public health.

Areas of interest

For the purposes of this call, several broad themes have been described below with examples of particular areas of interest for research. All research proposals should address the potential impact on health inequalities and equity of access.

A range of study designs and outcome measures could be used. Researchers will need to identify and justify the most suitable methodological approach. Researchers will also need to specify key outcome measures and specify how these will be measured in the short, medium and long term. Primary outcomes must be health related.

Relevant populations or sub-groups may be studied, based on factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or other socio-demographic factors. Researchers should specify and justify their choice of intervention (if applicable) and the relevance to the population being studied and the outcomes being measured.

Areas of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • How do people receive guidance? How can we make sure they are following the most up-to-date guidance when it changes frequently?
  • How do we stop the guidance from becoming self-defeating because it encourages other behaviours that are detrimental to health (e.g. discourages exercise, self-isolation leads to mental health problems) or life (e.g. travelling by car)?
  • How acceptable health communication is found to be across different populations, e.g. different ages, cultures, ethnicities, employment groups (such as those jobs requiring contact with other people, e.g. carers, emergency services), across urban and rural locations, different social groups. What support would benefit individuals from underserved populations, for example, minority ethnic groups, adults who are not eligible for or are on the fringes of social care, people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, autistic people without learning disabilities.
  • Using community assets, including faith groups, to reach underserved populations.
  • Developing an understanding of how to support communication to the general public about the powerful role they can play in reducing disease transmission, for example different messaging may be required about virus transmission, vaccination, and how to reduce shared risk (such as mask wearing, social distancing, etc.).
  • Ensuring clear and consistent public health messaging for people who have had a vaccination, e.g., still following public health measures post-vaccination as people can still transmit viruses despite having had the vaccine
  • What forms of health communication have been most successful, e.g. government briefings, podcasts and blogs summarising the information, social media? Have innovative methods of communication been utilised?
  • Enhancing trust and acceptance of government guidance by the media and general public, particularly when this guidance frequently changes.
  • Examining the spread of inaccurate information and conspiracy theories and their impact on population behaviour and adherence to guidance.
  • Monitoring adherence with public health measures, e.g. local and national lockdowns, curfews, wearing of face coverings, limiting social contact.
  • Differences in government approaches to the framing of public health messages across multiple countries.

Applications should be co-produced, demonstrating an equal partnership with service commissioners, providers and service users in order to provide evidence and actionable findings of immediate utility to decision-makers and service users. Applicants may wish to consult the NIHR guidance on co-producing research.

How to apply

Research proposals must be within the remit of at least one participating NIHR Programme. The Programmes involved in this call are:

Applicants should note that:

  • Applications which span the remit of one or more of the participating NIHR Programmes will be welcomed. In these cases, the application should be submitted to the Programme within whose remit the major part of the work lies.
  • Applicants should justify the importance of their proposed research and its potential impact on patient care.
  • Applicants should clearly state how their proposed research addresses an explicit evidence gap and how the research adds value to the existing NIHR research portfolio
  • Applications should be collaborative and involve investigators spanning different specialties and a range of those delivering care, methodologists and also service users, carers and patients.
  • Patient and public involvement should be included within the application and study design.
  • NIHR is open to both primary research and evidence syntheses.

Contact information

Applicants who require further guidance may should contact the Programme they feel is the most appropriate for their research idea. Applicants may also wish to contact their local RDS to discuss their research idea.

Deadline for proposals

Please note that submission dates vary between Programmes and completed applications must be submitted by the date specified on the relevant Programme’s call advert page on the NIHR website Funding opportunities page. The call reference numbers are:

  • 22/66 Health and Social Care Delivery Research
  • 22/67 Health Technology Assessment 
  • 22/56 Public Health Research