The Role of Social and Behavioral Science in Public Health Practice: A Study of the New York City Department of Health
Studies over the last decade have demonstrated the effectiveness of public health interventions based on social and behavioral science theory for many health problems. Little is known about the extent to which health departments are currently utilizing these theories. This study assesses the application of social and behavioral science to programs in the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH). Structured open-ended interviews were conducted with executive and program management staff of the health department. Respondents were asked about the application of social and behavioral sciences within their programs, and about the benefits and barriers to increasing the use of such approaches. Themes related to the aims of the study were identified, a detailed coding manual developed, narrative data were coded independently by two investigators (kappa.85), and data analyzed. Interviews were conducted with 61 eligible individuals (response rate 88%). The most common applications of social and behavioral science were individual-level behavior change to prevent HIV transmission and community-level interventions utilizing community organizing models and/or media interventions for health promotion and disease prevention. There are generally positive attitudes about the benefits of utilizing these sciences; however, there are also reservations about expanded use because of resource constraints. While NYCDOH has successfully applied social and behavioral sciences in some areas of practice, many areas use them minimally or not at all. Increasing use will require additional resources. Partnerships with academic institutions can bring additional social and behavioral science resources to health departments and benefit researchers understanding of the health department environment.