By Eric Ruble
Visitors to the USC University Park Campus might notice some new posters reminding students to sanitize their hands. At least, Imani Richburg hopes the signs catch people’s eye. Why? Because the USC master’s of public health student used lessons she learned in behavioral science class to create the posters for USC in an effort to boost safe hygiene practices.
Richburg says she enrolled in USC’s MPH program because she wanted to be an advocate for her community. “I have always felt like I have been called to be in the health care system,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic heightened her interest in the field, especially when it came to influencing human behavior. She enrolled in Provost Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin’s class, “Behavioral Insights for Health Policy” (PPD 599), which is offered through the USC Price School of Public Policy.
“She basically goes through foundational studies that pioneered a specific thought,” Richburg said of Bruine de Bruin.
One of those studies was a Danish experiment in which a hospital was able to improve visitors’ hygiene by relocating hand sanitizer dispensers and adding signage to encourage their use. The white dispensers – which were once tucked away in a corner against a white wall – were moved to a more visible area and accompanied by an uncomplicated sign reading “Here, we use hand disinfectant in order to protect your relative.” Following the changes, the use of hand sanitizer rose dramatically – from 3% to 67%.
“It was very compelling, and uses two well-known behavioral insights,” said Bruine de Bruin. “That is, behavior change interventions are more successful if you make it easier for people to implement the recommended behavior, and remind people of the social norm.”
When examining the study, the students noticed that some hand sanitizer dispensers at USC were located in areas lacking visibility.
“The class suggested that we should send a recommendation to Dean Dana Goldman to improve the placement of the hand sanitizer dispensers and add posters to draw attention to the social norm of sanitizing our hands to protect each other,” Bruine de Bruin said.
Goldman, who is also the co-director of the USC Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, immediately supported the idea. Bruine de Bruin offered a voluntary assignment in which students could create their own posters to enhance the dispensers’ visibility.
A simple and effective design
Ten students submitted designs, and the university selected Richburg’s. The final version – which slightly altered Richburg’s to keep it within university brand guidelines – features a simple illustration of a sanitizer bottle, a hand and a “Fight On” design. It is accompanied by the text: “Here we sanitize to save our lives. United. Sanitized. Community.”
The community-centric language echoes that of the Danish poster.
“I was trying to incorporate lessons that [Bruine de Bruin] taught us about behavioral science and how to promote a desired behavior within a community,” Richburg said. “I wanted to do something that ties in a sense of camaraderie.”
She said she drew on her experience working for the City of Malibu, where she created signage for the Community Services Department.
“I didn’t think that it was going to get chosen, but I did think it was a good design!” she said.
The posters are currently being installedin the Engemann Student Health Center on the University Park Campus.
Bruine de Bruin said Richburg succeeded in applying the key principles for effective health-related communications. “Behavioral science recommends making things easy so that people don’t have to think very hard about a recommended behavior – so they don’t have to look for the hand sanitizer. They will just be easily reminded when they see it right there. Having a social norm and a sense of community emphasized usually also helps.”
Richburg said Bruine de Bruin has been an outstanding educator who regularly uses real-world examples to help students understand the material.
“She’s the type of professor that loves her work so much, you know that she just wants to teach and she wants to help,” Richburg said. “That really just shines every time you’re in class.”
Richburg highly encouraged others to enroll in Bruine de Bruin’s course, which will be held again in fall 2022.
“Take the class,” Richburg said. “Everybody who signs up will be super happy that they did.”