By Theresa Frasca
Today, the ways people get health information are as varied as the institutions, organizations and media that deliver it. With a self-diagnosis from “Dr. Google” just clicks away, more effective communications are critical for public health. A two-day conference in June at the U-M Instittue for Social Research’s Center for Political Studies (CPS) sought the best ways to disseminate health research through better messaging and promotion of better health. Seventy-five people attended the event, which drew scholars in health communication, information processing and decision-making.
The idea for the conference was sparked when researchers at CPS saw potential public-health benefits within their work in political and science communications. “We wanted to see if closer interactions with scholars in the public-health field could help each of us contribute to a better understanding of health communication, as well as improvements in the effectiveness of health communication,” said Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science and a CPS research professor
To highlight the challenge of communicating health research, Dan Kahan, a professor of both law and psychology at Yale Law School, kicked off the conference with his presentation, “On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Ignorance.” According to Kahan, the science communication problem is “the failure of valid, compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence to quiet persistent political controversy over risk or related kinds of facts.” He named climate change as one of the most conspicuous current examples. Kahn warned of the risk of focusing attention on cases that show a science communication problem instead of much larger cases where public opinion does agree on the best available evidence. “We’re likely to be distracted from evidence that would challenge the preconceptions that are wrong,” he said. He closed by urging researchers to “study the mundane and the normal, and not just the exciting and the spectacular in risk perception.”
The growing gap between the healthy and those who are not was the focus of Sarah Gollust’s presentation, “Improving Population Health in a Politicized World: Understanding and Overcoming Communication Barriers.” An associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Gollust shared how the public is increasingly divided not only in beliefs but also into groups that are feeling ill or well. “In order to improve health, we have to do more than provide health insurance, and we have to do more than have health campaigns, such as telling people not to smoke,” said Gollust. “We need to have health policies addressing healthier homes, healthier neighborhoods, reducing poverty, and the influence and experience of racism and other structurally significant issues.”
A major obstacle to effective health communications is false information. Brendan Nyhan, The New York Times Upshot column contributor and an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, presented “The Challenge of False Beliefs: Understanding and Countering Misperceptions in Politics and Health Care.” He talked about addressing misperceptions, the psychology behind them and ways to foster a stronger factual basis for public discourse. “There’s an underlying presumption that the facts will dominate in politics and public policy, that they will drive public opinion and influence policymakers,” said Nyhan. “And whenever we observe claims being made in contradiction to the facts, the best response is to provide more information. I’ve tried to push people to think harder about that, especially when it comes to these controversial issues where people are not waiting for the facts to show up.”
On the patient side of the equation, physician and behavioral scientist (and former U-M faculty member) Peter Ubel shared his presentation, “Helping Patients Decide: Ten Steps to Better Risk Communication.” His research examines ways to help patients make good health decisions by conveying to them health risks and benefits. Ubel’s methods include presenting absolute risks using frequencies instead of relative risks, and using plain language. “We need to help patients understand the pros and cons of the decision they face so they can have a role in the decision,” said Ubel. “This is not just about reasoning and cognition, it’s also about risk as feelings.”
Videos from these and other presentations are on the CPS website, as well as white papers from each presenter. Portions of the event were also live-streamed and live-tweeted from the CPS Twitter account, using hashtags #HScomm and #scicomm. Sponsorships from the National Science Foundation and the Center for Political Studies made the event possible and free for attendees.
Silver Lundsdaine, a participant and recent U-M School of Public Health graduate, said, “What has made the biggest impact to me today is the cumulative effect of all of the panelists and the diversity of opinions. This is such an incredible gathering of people at the forefront of their fields, and the fact that it’s offered free to the public is just amazing.” U-M Communications graduate student Ozan Kuru said he found the “cross-cutting theoretical approaches” presented at the conference the most interesting aspect, as well as the challenge of politicized health information.
Organizers say the conference may become an annual event, depending on funding, as attendee feedback was extraordinary. “The conference brought together people with a distinctive combination of experiences,” said Lupia. “It’s produced new lines of communication, and we are hopeful for more engaged collaboration in the service of improving health outcomes for all citizens.”