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Health and Science

How Health Organizations Should Talk About Colorectal Cancer 

It’s a challenge troubling health organizations for decades: what is the most effective way to communicate important information about health risks to the public?

In research published last August in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications researchers Jordan M. Neil, Ph.D. candidate, Janice Krieger, director of the STEM Translational Communication Center, Sriram Kalyanaraman, director of the Media Effects and Technology Lab, and Thomas J. George, M.D., with UF Health, set out to tackle the challenge of effectively communicating the benefits of early screenings for colorectal cancer. They note that translating recommendations for the public, especially when it comes to cancer prevention, has been historically problematic.

“Communicating scientific advances in ways that are easily understandable by the lay public has long been a challenge in science communication,” Neil and his colleagues said in the study.

“Information is either discounted as personally irrelevant, or the perceived unpredictability and inconsistency of scientific information lowers confidence in, and arouses uncertainty about, the validity of the science in question.”

Cancer screening information in particular is often unsuccessfully translated to patients because of changing recommendations concerning age, frequency and the cost and benefit to the patient. This inability to effectively communicate can have tragic results, as both the early detection of precancerous polyps through colonoscopies and the use of home stool test kits can significantly reduce the mortality associated with this type of cancer, the second leading cause of cancer mortality in the U.S.

To solve this problem, the researchers examined whether framing these screening messages as being temporally immediate makes them more effective. Temporal immediacy involves using present tense verbs to reduce the perceived gap between a risk and the need to act to prevent it. For example, the phrase, “Every day, many people face this risk” increases the reader’s sense of immediacy in comparison to the phrase “each year.” Using present tense has other benefits as well.

“Framing information as new information using present tense verbs should invoke perceptions of scientific innovation and progress,” Neil and his colleagues said in the study.

The research team conducted an online message design experiment with a sample of 305 adults ages 50 to 75. The participants were given one of two messages: either a temporally immediate message, framing colorectal cancer guidelines as new, or a non-immediate message, framing the guidelines as a change in recommendations. Both message types included a list of benefits associated with the screening method.

The researchers found that framing screens as new is more effective at increasing a patient’s intention to follow updated screening guidelines. Moreover, they found that a patient’s perceived risk, or susceptibility to colorectal cancer, and benefit, the perceived efficacy of screening, play large roles in decision-making. If a patient believes they are at risk of colorectal cancer and they believe the current screening methods are effective, then they are most likely to undergo this process.

“Current practice often sees health organizations communicate updated information as contradictory to previous recommendations, which may reduce an audience’s likelihood to accept the information and be noncompliant with the scientific recommendation,” the researchers said in the study.

They outline the practical applications for health organizations, suggesting they emphasize the “new” over the “changed” or “updated,” so as to not lead audiences to believe the current information is in conflict with past information.

Though the researchers note the limitations of their research, mainly due to their sample population lacking in cultural diversity, they acknowledge the impact of their findings: proving science and language are inextricably linked.

Posted: October 25, 2017
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