the Canadian Science Writers' Association
Communicating Health Information
By Guenther Krueger
There is a fine line between irrational panic and justified fear.
This is certainly something that was evident during the SARS crisis.
Communicating health information remains a sensitive and complicated
task. How the facts are presented and which aspects are highlighted
can become important determinants of how things become interpreted
While the fears may have been irrational, so were some of the comparisons.
Attempting to calm people's frayed nerves about SARS by explaining
that more people die of influenza or positioning the numbers in
the context of deaths worldwide probably did little good. When people
read they relate it to themselves, not what is happening globally,
or even nationally.
Actual clarity was often missing from the stories. When writing
about health issues it's important to explain terminology along
with charts, diagrams and sidebars that give factual information.
Knowledge of the truth is reassuring, not mumbo jumbo about how
SARS is "sweeping Asia".
So how to get the facts? When asking about research or epidemiological
patterns, ask the questions of the researcher who conducted or is
responsible for the study, or who presented the findings. Frequently
these days PR people handle the media giving the story an instant
spin, or worse, false reassurance. The best person to synthesize
the results of whatever you're interested in is the person who carried
out the work. Go to the source.
If you are unclear of what to ask, then say so. Asking what the
take-home message is, what the implications are for other health
professionals, and what individual members of the public need to
understand are straightforward but legitimate questions. If you
don't understand it, neither will your reader. If the logic is unclear,
others won't follow your arguments. The key is to be clear without
being patronizing and knowledgeable without being pedantic.
Fitting research findings into a context or timeline is also useful.
How will this play out or where things are moving can help gain
perspective. However, projections, even when made by experts, are
often fuzzy because health and disease are complex, elusive, and
relative constructs. How people become ill is not nearly as well
understood as is generally believed. No one knew for sure how SARS
would play out, but many predictions were accurate.
In fact, disease is related to many factors, including genetic
predisposition or heredity, socioeconomic factors, the strength
of the immune system, diet, lifestyle factors such as drinking,
smoking, rest, and exercise, exposure to viruses, bacteria, and
parasites, along with age, sex and psychological variables. Simple,
single factors such as exposure to an organism may not cause anything
all by itself. It might, but we don't really understand the process.
As a knowledgeable journalist covering health issues you should
be familiar with some key concepts. You should understand the scientific
approach by which a problem is defined, a hypothesis or question
is raised, deductive reasoning is applied, the hypothesis is tested
through collection and analysis of data, and finally, the hypothesis
is confirmed or rejected.
If you are writing about pharmaceuticals, you should understand
the clinical trial process, the scientific way in which agents or
procedures are tested to ensure safety and effectiveness. Methods
are compared, often using a placebo or sham treatment that makes
objective measurements possible. There is also a phase process where,
for example, pharmaceuticals move from the laboratory, into animals,
then into selected individuals, and finally into widespread use.
The more you understand about research design, the more comfortable
you will be in looking at scientific studies and analyzing where
potential problems might arise. Of course, few of us have the background
and expertise to determine whether appropriate statistical inferences
were made and whether the general study design is robust and well-constructed.
Even professionals hire statisticians to do the number crunching.
But asking the right questions is the journalist's prerogative and
skillfully done can get the right information.
There are many ways to improve your understanding of reporting
on health matters. These include reference texts, Internet search
skills, and the use of solid journalistic techniques to get the
story right. And getting it right can make a big impact, especially
when people are anxious for proper facts.
Guenther Krueger is a freelance writer living in Burnaby BC,
and member of the CSWA. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies.
For more information about the Canadian Science Writers'
Association, please see their listing,
please see their listing in this issue of Sources.
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