The health threats that we face today are different from those of the past. Rather than infectious diseases, we face a threat from the way we lead our lives – from the way we drive our cars, eat fatty foods, avoid exercise, drink excessive alcohol and smoke cigarettes. A wide range of educational interventions have been designed to tackle these issues.
It is likely that the reason for the popularity of these educational interventions is that they satisfy a number of goals. They allow authorities to be seen to be addressing a matter of public concern; they are plausible, both to those who create them and those who receive them; and they are politically uncontroversial, requiring no regulation. However, the evidence indicates that they are in large part ineffective.
There are probably a number of reasons for this ineffectiveness. For example, it is frequently noted that educational interventions are often designed in the absence of theory or any formal body of evidence. In some circumstances they may inadvertently increase exposure to risk, and may actually increase the perceived frequency of risky behaviours.
Among professional circles there is increasing impatience at the role of education, with some arguing that educational measures serve to divert attention and resources away from measures that would achieve results.
An important challenge is to specify what role, if any, education plays in public health.
For those who believe that it plays no role, the challenge is to determine whether more intrusive policies (such as regulation) would be possible in the absence of educational interventions.
For those who believe that education plays an indirect role by legitimising policy changes such as speed camera enforcement, the necessary next step is to demonstrate that this is so.
For those who believe that education plays a direct role in improving public health, the challenge is to explain the current level of ineffectiveness and to provide evidence that educational measures can work.
Commentators have noted that the culture within which educational interventions operate could readily be improved by providing an evidential base to support both the design and the evaluation of these interventions.