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From 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 or misinterpreted.

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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