Yoga, one example of an activity meant to manage back pain, is demonstrated at a photo shoot during an American Specialty Health conference in October at Loews Coronado Bay Resort. The company is among wellness companies in San Diego focused on health plans, health organizations and employers.

Yoga, one example of an activity meant to manage back pain, is demonstrated at a photo shoot during an American Specialty Health conference in October at Loews Coronado Bay Resort. The company is among wellness companies in San Diego focused on health plans, health organizations and employers. Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle.

— Swaying rural teens in Arkansas to stay away from chewing tobacco, a habit ingrained in the local culture, is no easy task. Nor is crafting relatable messages for teens on the dangers of prescription painkiller abuse.

So health organizations across the nation contract San Diego-based Rescue – The Behavior Change Agency to craft public health campaigns in these areas. It’s part of a crop of wellness companies in San Diego catering to health plans, health organizations and employers, a contrast to others in the space with a consumer bent.

With escalating health costs, payers have become open to alternatives like fitness and nutrition. So too have they taken an increased interest in behavior modification, fueling Rescue’s huge growth curve.

In 2016, Rescue’s revenue was $72.9 million, a 440 percent increase over 2014’s total. Clients have included Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, the Southern Nevada Health District, departments of health in four states and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products.

“We’re focused on communicating to someone who doesn’t want to hear our message. They’re not in the market for tobacco prevention methods. They’re not in the market for an opioid education message. So we have to find them and engage them in a unique way,” said CEO Kristin Carroll.

She said health organizations often deliver campaigns long on facts, but short on persuasion. Likewise, commercial ad agencies are versed in driving sales, but not necessarily changing behaviors.

“There’s an opportunity to connect the dots across public health, community organizations, media and technology,” Carroll said.

For Rescue, that’s recently involved tackling the opioid epidemic. Last month it launched a largely digital campaign — Over the Dose — targeting at-risk teens in Vermont. The idea is to drive interaction.

“It’s not only fact-based information, but a digital experience that allows people to interact with the information, so that they’re not just reading, but internalizing. We find that’s much more impactful than just telling or scaring people,” Carroll said.

Outside of health care, Rescue has increased the attendance in after-school programs at San Diego Unified School District.

Its campaigns start with segmenting a target audience based on interests, lifestyles, influencers and habits. The company, formed in 2001, says mass messages can be wasted on those who aren’t at risk — and fail to reach vulnerable populations.

From there, Rescue holds focus groups to understand values, habits and structural challenges in unhealthy behaviors. The company then determines whether a change in policies, knowledge or norms is the best tack.

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