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Communicating health messages

How studies are presented often determines whether they resonate

Red meat

No more sausages and bacon? What's the world coming to? The time-honoured tradition of the full English breakfast is facing extinction after new revelations about its impact on our bodies.

Wait a moment - why is news of this 'new' cancer risk so much more compelling than the usual bombardment of cancer stories from newspapers and social media? Surely the reports about risks from antiperspirant, vegetable oils, hormones and bras should have long ago caused us to repent and take clean-living into our hearts? Yet, for some reason, they haven't. How strange - or perhaps it's not so strange at all.

How data is visualised makes all the difference
In telling us about the harm from ham, media outlets have used compelling visuals to bring the risk to life, making the situation far more real and hard-hitting for audiences. Consider this impactful infographic from Cancer Research UK:
Now take a look at how such comparisons are normally presented in the media.

As you can see, effective visualisation is more than science - it's an art. However, there is science underpinning why certain forms of data visualisation are more effective than others at communicating with and influencing readers.

A 2004 study by Stephen Few demonstrated that something as simple as the difference between a bar chart and a pie chart can have a dramatic impact on how data and information are understood.

Neurocognitively speaking, our pre-attentive processing is more efficient when comparing relative differences in line length than surface area. That means bar charts are more quickly and easily understood than pie charts.

In the real world, where the primary goal of data visualisation is to communicate clearly and engage the viewer, these principles are incredibly important. The right visuals are crucial to ensure viewers weigh and consider information carefully.

Effective visualisation is more than science - it's an art

Today, it's commonly assumed that simple data comparisons and infographics are critical only for the general public, not health care professionals (HCPs). In fact, visualisation is even more important for professionals in fields like medicine - where data is often extremely complex.

Consider a 2010 study by Gerd Gigerenzer of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy. Only a fifth (21%) of gynaecologists were able to estimate a patient's odds of having received a false positive during routine mammography correctly, despite being provided with the relevant statistical information (see above right). This was actually a worse performance than would be expected if the doctors had been guessing at random!

If this seems surprising, remember that HCPs have the same capacity for neuro-attentive processing as the rest of us - so why would complicated comparisons and plots be any clearer to them? They are human too.

Meat and cancer Cancer Research 

Source: Cancer Research UK 

How data is framed can incite behaviour change 
The way data is presented to the reader, consumer or fearful patient makes the situation suddenly accessible and 'real'. However, most 'X causes cancer' headlines are followed by percentages and comparisons that do little more than make the reader swipe for the next article.

Our perceptions and subsequent decisions or behaviours are heavily influenced by the way things are presented to us, or how they're 'framed'. We're bombarded with an enormous amount of information every day, meaning we have to develop mental shortcuts to enable efficient decision-making.

The framing bias exploits this susceptibility to the way in which things are presented to us. That is, contrary to what we might assume, preferences between options can be easily reversed based on a simple change in presentation. The result of this can be a change in our perceptions of an issue, or a product, and its impact on us.

A very simple example of this is packaging. Rationally, we know that most packaging doesn't impact the product itself. However, we continuously react to packaging to make value judgements about products.

This example is only one of many different types of framing approaches. In 1998, the work of Levin, Schneider and Gaeth highlighted the various ways in which framing information can have a dramatic impact. For instance, the statements below all clarify how seemingly simple contrasts can dramatically alter perceptions and interpretations:

  • Risky choice framing: The risk of losing 10/100 lives vs. the opportunity to save 90/100
  • Goal framing: Motivating people by offering them a £5 reward vs. setting a £5 penalty
  • Attribute framing: 95% lean beef vs. 5% fat beef.

The context that framing creates and leverages leads to impact. We're all incredibly sensitive to contextual and semantic cues in comparisons. This means that changing even one word can have a considerable effect. Consider another example:

Clearly, we can present two options in a way that significantly favours one over the other. This is probably the area where our industry most frequently comes across framing - in brand messaging or the language used to present our brand.

There are many effective ways to leverage the framing effect in healthcare communications. Two specific examples include:

  1. Highlight gains vs loses: Leading with gains is critical, but don't shy away from calling out what can be avoided by purchasing, prescribing or recommending a given product. For instance: 'Say hello to clear skin and goodbye to acne without any irritation.'
  2. Use clear, impactful comparisons for communicating risk: Never forget the importance of context - be it visual, linguistic or the careful selection of comparisons. In Pharma we consider these elements in detail, almost methodically during message development and detail aid refinement, but often lose sight of the bigger picture in terms of the overall framing effect we want to achieve. All these elements must serve your greater strategy.

Never forget the importance of context - be it visual, linguistic or the careful selection of comparisons. In Pharma we consider these elements in detail, almost methodically during message development and detail aid refinement, but often lose sight of the bigger picture in terms of the overall framing effect we want to achieve. All these elements must serve your greater strategy.

Never forget the importance of context - be it visual, linguistic or the careful selection of comparisons. In Pharma we consider these elements in detail, almost methodically during message development and detail aid refinement, but often lose sight of the bigger picture in terms of the overall framing effect we want to achieve. All these elements must serve your greater strategy.

What the doctor ordered: applying these principles
So, what should we learn from all this? Whether you're communicating with patients or healthcare professionals, how information is presented really matters. Presentation doesn't just alter how accessible information is, but the consideration it's given and the overall impact it makes on viewers.

Ultimately, we need to present data in a way that encourages readers to analyse it for themselves, weigh up comparisons easily and engage with the core message. As the humble full English has shown, the accessibility of health-related risks and associated information is crucial to communicating hazards and how to avoid them.

No matter how excellent your brand's products or services are, human nature means that viewers don't always react to them logically. By understanding the biases that lie behind human perception, we can unravel why people do what they do, change behaviour and ensure brands bring home the bacon.

Dr Pamela Walker is head of health at global market research consultancy Incite, at Pamela.Walker@incite.ws

In association with: Incite

16th February 2016

From: Marketing

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