At-Risk Populations

At-Risk Populations

For public health public information purposes: a special [or at-risk] population is any group who cannot be reached effectively during the initial phase of a public safety emergency with general public health messages delivered through mass communication channels. Barriers may be related to the channels of communication or to the receiver of messages. In identifying special populations, account for all elements which could severely hamper the ability of these groups to receive and act on beneficial health/risk information such as the following:

  • Cognitive impairment (if a proxy/guardian is not present to receive the message)
  • Language barriers severe enough that the message could be incorrectly acted on (if a proxy/guardian is not present to receive the message)
  • Physical impairments (if compensating technology or human resources are not available)
  • Strong challenges to important cultural beliefs relevant to the event
  • Environmental barriers (e.g., no TV, phone)
  • Pre-existing group psychological, social, or political/legal contexts (e.g., strong mistrust of the organization sending the message or fear of retribution if the receiver acts on the information) that could interfere with honest and respectful information exchange during emergency events

Belonging to a non-dominant group is not, in itself, a qualifier as a special population in this context. If basic emergency health messages can be communicated and received by non-dominant groups or otherwise identified special populations, then for communication purposes they would be part of the general population. Not all non-dominant groups or identified special populations would need special communication outreach during all emergency events or for all emergency messages. For example, if one was communicating about smallpox, an Amish population would not require special outreach unless the public health message was that they needed a vaccination. Generally, Amish persons shun vaccinations.

Early in a crisis, communication resources will be limited and the potential for mixed messages confusing the public will be great. The overwhelming evidence based on marketing and communication research is that, in an emergency, persons tend to have more in common regarding their information needs than not. Therefore a simple and consistent message would be best unless strong evidence suggests it won’t be effectively received by an identifiable group that may effectively receive the message in some other form.


Remember, the above definition is related to public information and health-risk communication activities only. Also, as the public safety event evolves, cultural concerns and group beliefs may become more important in ensuring messages are received and acted on.

Courtesy of Barbara Reynolds, CDC