Nav: Home

Communicating health risks in a post-truth world

February 14, 2017

Public officials faced with the tough task of communicating risk on contentious issues like vaccination or fluoridation - where the actual risk is low but public concern remains high - need to show that they care, demonstrate that they are taking action and strategically engage with the media. That's the message of a paper published today in the Sax Institute's Public Health Research & Practice journal.

"With the rise of 'alternative facts' and the tendency for people to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs, it is no longer enough to simply have the right policy," said lead author Dr Claire Hooker from the Centre for Values, Ethics and Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney.

"In circumstances where public concern and outrage is high even though the absolute risk is low, good quality scientific studies are not enough to ensure we protect the public's health. It's equally important to have the best approach to communicating with the public.

"In situations of public health and environmental concerns - such as vaccinations, water fluoridation and the risk of Ebola outbreaks in Australia ? officials and experts are often anxious that community criticism of proven health interventions will prevent good policy. But our research suggests that trying to shut off this criticism can make things worse, particularly as it's now almost impossible to effectively control the flow of information on social media."

Dr Hooker said there were best-practice strategies that Australian public health and environmental officials could look to adopt.

"Research shows that when people are emotional about an issue they have more difficulty hearing and processing information, and are more likely to pay attention to negative information. That's why the golden rule of successful risk communication is that people need to hear that you care before they will care about what they hear. Officials need to communicate early and often, be upfront about areas of uncertainty or complexity, and prioritise building trust over trying to push a message.

"Actions, of course, speak far louder than words. People don't want the 'official line' on a topic, they want to know what actions are been taken.

Finally, communication is most effective when public health officials engage directly with affected communities and with the media, including local and community-based social media. This way local communities know that authorities have integrity, are competent and can be trusted - the key to reassuring people and reducing outrage," said Dr Hooker.

Dr Hooker's paper was published in the latest issue of the Sax Institute's Public Health Research & Practice journal, which this month focuses on the theme of knowledge translation.

"The transfer of evidence into the policy making process is rarely a simple and smooth process. The types of evidence used and the way that evidence is practically applied in policy processes varies and that's why there is a focus on the skill of knowledge translation itself, to improve this process where possible," according to Guest Editor Dr Andrew Milat from the NSW Ministry of Health.
Download the embargoed paper

Communicating about risk: strategies for situations where public concern is high but the risk is low

Public link once embargo lifts (for inclusion in news articles)

Sax Institute

Related Public Health Articles:

Public health guidelines aim to lower health risks of cannabis use
Canada's Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines, released today with the endorsement of key medical and public health organizations, provide 10 science-based recommendations to enable cannabis users to reduce their health risks.
Study clusters health behavior groups to broaden public health interventions
A new study led by a University of Kansas researcher has used national health statistics and identified how to cluster seven health behavior groups based on smoking status, alcohol use, physical activity, physician visits and flu vaccination are associated with mortality.
Public health experts celebrate 30 years of CDC's prevention research solutions for communities with health disparities
It has been 30 years since CDC created the Prevention Research Centers (PRC) Program, currently a network of 26 academic institutions across the US dedicated to moving new discoveries into the communities that need them.
Public health experts support federally mandated smoke-free public housing
In response to a new federal rule mandating smoke-free policies in federally funded public housing authorities, three public health experts applaud the efforts of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to protect nonsmoking residents from the harmful effects of tobacco exposure.
The Lancet Public Health: UK soft drinks industry levy estimated to have significant health benefits, especially among children
The UK soft drinks industry levy, due to be introduced in April 2018, is estimated to have significant health benefits, especially among children, according to the first study to estimate its health impact, published in The Lancet Public Health.
More Public Health News and Public Health Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...