Armed with face masks and hand sanitizer, two good friends and I anxiously went on our first outing since our community opened up from its COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. As we entered back into civilization, what was most striking was the inconsistency of other people’s behavior. For example, retail employees were wearing masks, yet most customers had no face coverings; some people were actively stepping aside to increase distance from others; some people stood gathering with more than a few friends. And yet, as a behavioral scientist, I wasn’t all that shocked. The metropolitan area I live in is comprised of several municipalities, each with its own approach to re-entry, leaving the public to navigate the ever-changing and sometimes contradictory rules of engagement. And with mixed messages comes inconsistent behavior: an important lesson to keep in mind as we communicate about any health topic.

In healthcare, we see the damaging effects of poor communication firsthand. Even those diligently seeking out information about their condition might not be able to find the clear message they need in order to take appropriate action. The result is thorough disempowerment. 

To truly be empowered, patients need the skills to interpret information, see how it applies to them, and understand how to act on it. Yet, even before COVID-19, the sheer volume of information meant to empower was overwhelming and full of mixed messages. What we view as advancements of knowledge may be easily perceived by those without healthcare backgrounds as just more endlessly changing claims and recommendations. They can be too hard to keep track of—or they could even reinforce mistrust and doubt, making people think that “no one really knows what’s going on.” 

We are also contending with the reality that not all information should be considered equally. We don’t have to click far into Google search results to find dubious health-related claims. Additionally, avoiding misleading information might be even harder that we thought. A recent study in Science showed that “false” news spreads across Twitter more quickly and widely than true information. 

In fact, behavioral science shows us that humans are wired in such a way that makes us vulnerable to “faulty” decision-making. When we are trying to keep negative emotions at bay, are pressured to make quick decisions, and are faced with uncertainty—all conditions common to the patient experience—our cognitive biases can kick into overdrive. This leads us down a path of misinterpreting findings, prioritizing certain kinds of information over others, and paying attention only to those details that confirm what we already believe is true. And given these realities, there are no quick fixes.

But we can start by taking the lead in delivering one consistent voice that meets patients’ needs for clarity and consistency.

  • Create and validate guidelines for curating information – providing patients with tips on how to evaluate sources, identify red flags, and create a list of important questions to ask trusted health care professionals.
  • Expand patients’ access to scientific information by publishing “plain language” systematic reviews of peer-reviewed articles that are full of links to the original sources.
  • Engage our industry’s scientists who are at the forefront of medical discovery to help co-create initiatives to increase the scientific literacy of the general public.
  • Develop communication tools that other stakeholders could use to talk with patients about how to reconcile preventative or treatment recommendations with their values and day-to-day needs.
  • Serve as a clearinghouse for solid, trustworthy information.

Patients are at great risk when they’re buried or misguided by information. And as an industry, we serve as an essential conduit for critical health and medical information to them. With this responsibility, we need to keep pushing ourselves to ask: what more can be done? 

About the Author:

Kathleen Starr, PhD, is Head of Behavioral Insights & Strategy at Syneos Health Communications