A Thirst for Knowledge

How many times today have you clarified, explained or demonstrated something? Probably a lot because amongst all the other tasks you do, health professionals have a role as an educator too.

And it's a vitally important role because people actually want to be involved in their own care. They actively seek out knowledge and want to be able to act on reliable information. And here's where Health Information Week steps in.

The initiative has been running since 2005 and this year, between 2 - 8th July, you'll see a huge push to direct people towards good sources of health information.  It's not just about the services and support offered by the NHS but advice on lifestyle changes, which can help people to help themselves.

So far, so good - so what could possibly go wrong?

 

Mixed Messages

Well, it's not just a matter of you dispensing pearls of wisdom with the medication, because unfortunately, you are NOT the only source of information available to the general public. The ever-ubiquitous internet, with social media and the 24/7 news channels, is always on hand to offer up nuggets of health advice and here's where it starts unravelling….

Take an innocent cup of coffee and whilst you have a soothing sip, look at these headlines:

  • The Guardian (Aug 2013) "Heavy coffee consumption [meaning more than 4 cups a day] increases death rates in under-55s, study suggests" Well, that's worrying but no fear: here comes…
  • The Independent (Nov 2015) with "5 cups of coffee a day might make you live longer, study suggests" Phew, that's a relief and just to back it up, we have…
  • BBC News (Nov 2017) "Three cups of coffee a day 'may have health benefits'" Great. But just when you thought the coast was clear…
  • The Guardian (Mar 2018) "It's official! Coffee causes cancer (except when it doesn't)"

Well, that's cleared that up then.

 

Bracing for the Backlash

Contradictory health news is not just annoying though; it's a big hurdle when convincing people to make lifestyle changes. When health news flips, people point to this as yet another example of scientists either being simply incompetent OR being biased and whichever it is, it definitely means they can't be trusted. So if the public isn’t sure exactly what to do, what do they do? Well, according to research, they do nothing! And what's worse is that this backlash is not just against the contradictory message but ALL health messages (1) including those that we all completely agree on, such as: eat less fast food and be more active.

This could be that the contradiction is acting as a get-out clause - if the message to give up wine, chocolate or bacon isn't crystal-clear, then people have the excuse to carry on with their 'treats'. It also enhances a fatalistic approach to life: "If I'm just going to get cancer/have a heart attack/drop dead anyway, what's the point of trying to be healthier? (4)

 

3 Tips for Getting the Message Across

News stories will always lean towards the sensationalist angle, so these headlines will keep cropping up and if we want to guide people towards making the lifestyle changes that we know are worthwhile, how do we tackle it? Here’s 4 tips to help you to help them: 

  1. Counter sensationalist headlines with positive messages to empower and reassure people, as negativity seems to trigger defensive reactions and diminish motivation (2). In other words, say: "That's fantastic that you've cut down" rather than "If you don't stop, you're going to die!"
  2. People take notice of the news because it’s presented in a way they can quickly absorb and easily remember. So likewise communicate in a way that will focus their attention. Keep it simple, straightforward and avoid using medical jargon – it can make people switch off at a time when you really want to connect with them.
  3. Be prepared and read the stories, so you’re aware of the contradictions. You’ll then be in a prime position to clear up the confusion.

So perhaps one of the most vital parts of providing health information these days is to support and encourage people to navigate through the barrage of contradictory stories (3), giving them the best chance to stay motivated and make those positive changes.

Now put your feet up and enjoy that cappuccino!


1. Rebekah H. Nagler (2014) Adverse Outcomes Associated With Media Exposure to Contradictory Nutrition Messages. Journal of Health Communication; 19 (1): 24 DOI: 1080/10810730.2013.798384

2. Webb, D and Byrd-Bredbenner, C (2015) Overcoming Consumer Inertia Advanced Nutrition 6: 391-6

3. Carpenter, D.M; Geryk, L.L;  Chen, A.T; Nagler, R.H;   Dieckmann, N.F and Han, P. K .J (2015) Conflicting health information: a critical research need Health Expectations Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 19, 1173-1182 

4. Northup, T (2017) The ironic effect of covering health: Conflicting news stories contribute to fatalistic views to eating well. The International Journal of Communication and Health. 12, 26-34