By Vincent Dolgikh, MPH candidate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Public Health Prepared
Today’s sheer quantity of epidemiological data can be overwhelming for the public to discern. It is more important than ever that scientists and the public health workforce find effective strategies for communicating data and evidence in simple yet long-lasting ways. Thought experiments can help elucidate this process.
Your colleagues at the Michigan state health department report a devastating increase in the West Nile Virus (WNV). As the leading vector-borne epidemiology specialist of your health institution, you are shocked at the news. Climate change has led to longer and warmer summers in Michigan, where WNV is typically rare… until now. You have been requested to conduct surveillance analysis and report your findings as well as recommendations to the public information officer (PIO) during an important state public health address that will be widely covered by the local and national media.
Oftentimes as health professionals, we face public health communication during periods of crisis. We bear the responsibility to take a complex situation and strategically provide a method that communities can implement to increase the prevention of disease transmission. Regardless if the circumstance is urgent or not, one important question to ask yourself is: “How can I simplify scientific findings without missing important details crucial for the public’s understanding?”
Here is a brief video that describes how understanding the audience you intend to inform is essential for scientific communication.
Reverting back to our thought experiment: As the lead specialist, you work together with your team to analyze the data, determine hotspots, and find ways to simplify the abundant statistical values and peculiar models. After engaging in meetings with the team and connecting with other subject matter experts, you finalize a report that the PIO can build an announcement from for the important health address. You feel confident and assured that the report provides everything the public will need to know about the WNV outbreak.
It may sound a little corny, but teamwork does make the dream work. Handling an outbreak is no easy task, luckily your peers are a valuable resource. Moreover, several other suggestions need to be emphasized before the day of the health address!
Here is a list with examples relating to the thought experiment of how to effectively communicate Michigan’s WNV outbreak. The information below was inspired by the CDC’s field epidemiology manual chapter focusing on “Communicating During an Outbreak or Public Health Investigation.”
Summarizing the key strategies for effective scientific communication, one should implement:
- Risk perception
- Communication strategy
- Effective messaging
Risk Perception: The public perceives WNV as exotic and feels a lack of control over the situation of the WNV outbreak. As an epidemiologist, you decide to reframe the risk perception by describing clear ways to reduce mosquito breeding grounds and although a cure does not exist, you provide alternative avenues for preventing infection through lifestyle (clothing choice, mosquito spray). By doing so, the PIO can inform the public about at-risk groups, key preventative tips, and additional measures that clinicians should implement.
Key Takeaway: The public may judge the severity of the problem to be less than what the research suggests. Hence, the more acceptable you frame the risk of WNV for the public, the more empowered the public will feel in cooperating with the public health message and taking precautionary measures.
Trust/Credibility: In your report, you describe the uncertainty of the situation while reassuring the public that your team is working hard. You acknowledge that guidelines will be changing and your team will continually address inaccuracies that may appear. You stress how local approaches can prove important success in stopping WNV spread. Finally, you emphasize that things may be confusing but your team is committed to minimizing confusion.
Key Takeaway: Dedication, empathy, honesty, and expertise will be extremely important in your scientific communication. Public trust is built on acknowledging the gaps that exist and reassuring the public that inaccuracies will be dealt with as soon as they are known. This is an important foundation for public acceptance and responsiveness towards recommendations.
Communication Strategy: Although the public health address was a main communication strategy for the outbreak, the PIO reminds the public of the state health website where different resources are available.
Key Takeaway: The type of communication strategy you implement needs to be multifaceted. Internet sites, call centers, social media, press kits, and clinical outreach resources are just a few examples where messaging can be crucial. Tailoring these message platforms or techniques to unique populations is another important consideration (translations, videos, graphics, etc.). For more information on this see our accessibility two pager.
Effective Messaging: As you reflect on the public health speech, an audience member applauds the PIO’s succinct, clear, and straightforward approach towards explaining the WNV outbreak.
Key Takeaway: Simple language and avoiding jargon lead to easy interpretation of a public health message. Be sure to adapt your messaging to the type of audience you are informing. Academics will understand the p-values and risk ratios, the public will benefit from things they can do to keep their families and friends safe.
Designing and delivering accurate, accessible, and effective health communications is key to bridging the gap between researchers and scientists, and the public at large. Coalescing your resources and strategizing in a timely manner will support the public in making informed health decisions.