With public health information saying ‘why’ matters

From education campaigns about youth vaping prevention to emergency notifications during various outbreaks, persuasive communication approaches are important in public health.

A new study co-authored by Lucy D’Agostino McGowan, assistant professor of statistics at Wake Forest University, takes a closer look at how transparency in messaging can influence community response. Hannah Mendoza worked with D’Agostino McGowan as part of her honors thesis when she was an undergraduate student.

How it all began

Their research was sparked by early recommendations from officials surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought into question how decisions and guidelines regarding science and public health are communicated to the public. One of those was masking.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions initially recommended not wearing masks; perhaps if there had been more nuance included in initial communication, then there could have been better compliance with later recommendations, when they ultimately did recommend masking,” said D’Agostino McGowan.

“For example, they could have stated the reason, such as ‘we recommend not wearing masks currently because we don’t yet have evidence that would help with this pathogen’. Or, ‘our best studies on masking are based on the flu’. If there had just been more context, then maybe the uptake would have been different when the recommendation changed.” 

Conducting a randomized trial 

To test this out, D’Agostino McGowan and Mendoza created a hypothetical scenario that wasn’t directly tied to the pandemic. Questions were presented to participants that centered around a baseline inquiry: do you disinfect your cell phone?

Nearly 600 individuals from across the country were part of the randomized study. These participants were then split into two groups with one half receiving a health recommendation alone and the other half receiving a recommendation with more transparent information about why the decision was being made.

“What we found is that for people who would have been hesitant to follow the final health recommendation, if you give them the actual reasoning behind it from the beginning, they are more likely to follow the final recommendation compared to those who were not shown the transparent information in the initial one.”

Why the research is meaningful

It’s important to note that communications in public health can change rapidly, and recommendations are often based on available data for the targeted population. But even if complete information isn’t readily available, D’Agostino McGowan said clear, concise, and straightforward messaging that includes a “why” is key for increasing public response and building trust in communities.

The study is significant because it has implications that extend beyond the public health arena.

“This is a good first step in trying to quantify how communicating with transparency can potentially improve adherence to subsequent recommendations in public health and in other sectors.” Lucy D'Agostino McGowan, assistant professor of statistics

Further studies are needed, she added. “This type of research can help us better understand how these communications influence a person’s behavior in various scenarios.”

The title of the paper is: Randomized Controlled Trial: Quantifying the Impact of Disclosing Uncertainty on Adherence to Hypothetical Health Recommendations.

The study by D’Agostino McGowan and Mendoza was published today in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE.

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