Healthcare

Applying a Doctor’s Office Standard to Health Care Studies

Communication within the walls of a doctor’s office has improved greatly over the past 40 years. There was a time when women would awake from a breast biopsy to find that she had breast cancer and that a mastectomy had been performed – without her consultation.

Patients are now completely involved in the decision-making process due to the recognition that every decision cannot be viewed as strictly a medical judgement, but as a patient value judgement.

As a result, doctors present treatment options, with variables and trade-offs, in an unbiased and straightforward fashion. This is because doctors are cognizant that patients react differently based on how a treatment is framed, especially in outcomes.

As a study on framing medical choices highlighted, people opted for procedures with a “90 percent survival rate” over a procedure with a “10 percent mortality rate,” despite the outcome being identical.1

While the doctor-patient communication channel has grown significantly, it pales in comparison to the growth of health care information available through social media and online sources.

A 2016 study performed by the American Press Institute (API) found that 51 percent of Americans get their news from social media.2

An aspect of the news on social media consumption relates to health care news. A study from Aetna shows that 47 percent of social media users use social platforms for the purposes of health education.3

These figures show that the same standard of information and framing in a doctor-patient communication needs to be met by health care communicators or social managers.

That’s right, we are talking about a high level of responsibility.

This standard is especially important in the dissemination and sharing of health care studies.

Health care communicators act as gatekeepers of information – how the information is presented to the public is how it will appear in print or broadcast. Similarly, social media managers sharing a third-party study or findings provide a stamp of approval. People make health related decisions based off this information.

When pitching or sharing complicated studies, health care communicators and social media managers have a responsibility to holistically understand the study, not only the talking points or headline.

Take, for instance, a study that made the online and social media rounds a couple weeks ago on diet soda’s linkage to Alzheimer’s and stroke.

While the headlines of articles from traditionally recognized outlets like The Washington Post and NBC News proclaim “diet sodas cause strokes,” the reality is that there is no cause-and-effect, but instead, a minor observational link. This particular study also relies on self-report (recall bias is a possibility), was absent of ethnic minorities (generalizability to an entire population is not possible) and did not look at factors like family history of disease or socioeconomic status (noted cause-and-effect factors of stroke).

This study was irresponsibly pitched, and as a result, irresponsibly shared on social media.

Scientific studies by their very nature are imperfect – each study type comes with its own positives and negatives. In fact, the three studies that I cited throughout this article include flaws:

  1. Framing Study: Was published in 1988 – are the findings still relevant?
  2. API Study: The study was a self-report survey, which can lead to recall bias.
  3. Aetna Study: The pool consisted of only people 18 and older using their mobile app.

Before pitching a study to media or sharing a study from a brand’s social channel, consider and seek out the answers to these questions:

  • What is the size, demographic and location of the study’s pool?
  • What type of study was used? Can this type lead to any bias?
  • What is the author’s purpose in creating the study?
  • Does the study show causation or correlation? What is the strength of the causation or correlation?
  • If you are looking to share online, what is the source of study? Has it been published in a peer-reviewed journal? Is that journal reputable?

These are only a few of the possible questions you should weigh before disseminating a study. You might not be a doctor talking with a patient, but you are a lot closer than you think.

About Kenny Devine:

Kenny Devine is an Assistant Account Executive on the Padilla M Team, which focuses on Minnesota based clients. He works on media relations and strategy for consumer focused companies such as the Center for Prevention of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and Armstrong Residential Ceilings. Kenny holds a bachelor’s degree in Sport Management from the University of Minnesota.

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