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Design for Effective Health Communication

Communication studies assistant professors Nathan Walter and Courtney Scherr research how healthcare consumers can access more reliable information, use their voices to demand care, and make healthier choices. Two of their research projects demonstrate that designing a personal narrative is a key to reaching audiences.

Scherr’s recent work centers on how parents of children with developmental delays might better access interventions earlier in the child’s life, ideally between ages 1 and 3. Although some parents might be in denial or lack the language to share their concerns with providers, she found that those who don’t pursue interventions might also have been coaxed by friends, family, educators, and even healthcare providers to “wait and see.” Waiting to see if problems self correct could mean that the child ages out of certain interventions, and some interventions may be less effective when started at older ages.

Scherr and colleagues are creating a narrative video that could help parents become more informed advocates for their children. Designed as a personal narrative with testimony from parents, the video would focus on encouraging other parents to trust their instincts and not to fear having their children evaluated for developmental delays.

“Some people are worried that if they get the evaluation it will lead them down a particular road, and sometimes it does, but the evaluation could tell you your child is just fine,” she says. “In some cases it’s a minor delay, and early intervention services will help children catch up with their peers by the time they get to kindergarten. We want to normalize the experience through other parents’ narratives and provide parents with language and empowerment to stand up for their children.”

Walter, too, has found the personal narrative approach to be a helpful tool. His research uses it to design more effective public service announcements about the dangers of tobacco use. Earlier methods have been roundly dismissed as ineffective.

“If we think about the traditional public service announcement, it usually starts with something very scary: Tobacco can kill you. Drugs can kill you.” Noting that users are well aware their behavior is risky, he says, “We propose an alternative mechanism: reverse this. Instead of starting with fear, start with a self-affirming message.”

In one study, Walter composed a personal narrative about a college student using e-cigarettes and then distributed it to research subjects who vape. The story involved a roommate confronting the student about the dangers of e-cigarettes and the student receiving a prestigious scholarship. In half of the stories, the scholarship preceded the confrontation. “When we manipulate the order of the events, we’re able to show that when the award comes before the threat, people are much more receptive to the risk information,” says Walter. “Those who were first exposed to the affirming event, then the threat, scored their personal risk much higher. They also had to say how likely they were to use e-cigarettes in the next three years, and we were able to show it would reduce the likelihood they’d use e-cigarettes.”

Walter was pleased to find that the positive effects persisted two weeks later and, when compared with a traditional PSA, were far more likely to make an impact. He hopes to design film versions of these narratives, which would be easier to share and might reach more people.