Author: Jessica Gall Myrick

Hands Under a Running Faucet

Washing hands might be more message-dependent than we thought

A recent New York Times Well blog post titled, “Getting doctors to wash their hands” reminds us that patients are not the only ones who can benefit from some good, theory-driven health communication.

Leave it to the psychologists to figure out what messages will and will not work for healthcare professionals, only 40 percent of whom regularly comply with commands to wash their hands before dealing with patients.

The researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wondered if focusing messages on the needs of vulnerable patients instead of demanding that the doctors and nurses do something would increase compliance rates.

As reported by the NYT,

To find out, Dr. [David] Hofmann and his co-author, Adam Grant, took baseline measurements of the amount of soap and disinfectant caregivers used in a large North Carolina hospital. Then they measured the change in soap use when they put up different signs by the dispensers. One sign read “Hand Hygiene Prevents You from Catching Diseases.” Another read “Hand Hygiene Prevents Patients from Catching Diseases.” And a third sign, which served as a control, had a generic message: “Gel In, Wash Out.”

When the message “Hand Hygiene Prevents Patients from Catching Diseases” appeared next to the soap, the hospital employees used 33 percent more soap over a two week period than when either of the other signs were displayed.

If simple yet strategic and psychologically effective messages such as these can help decrease rates if hospital infections, then Upstream says let’s keep putting up the posters! What do you think about this method of reaching doctors and nurses with an important message? At what other points in the healthcare system could we make subtle changes in messages in order to reframe issues in ways that will help spark beneficial actions?


Surgeon General: Hair is no good excuse to not exercise

In a unique example of insight into health disparities, particularly the lack of physical activity among many African-American women,  General Dr. Regina Benjamin’s decided to address the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta. As reported by the New York Times, she said,

“Oftentimes you get women saying, ‘I can’t exercise today because I don’t want to sweat my hair back or get my hair wet,’ ” she said in an interview. “When you’re starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons.”

The problem, Dr. Benjamin said, is that many women — particularly black women, like herself — invest considerable amounts of time and money in chemical relaxers and other treatments that transform naturally tight curls into silky, straight locks. Moisture and motion can quickly undo those efforts, with the result that many women end up avoiding physical activity altogether.

Surgeon General Benjamin has already faced criticism over her remarks. Some say she needs to stick to the big issues, while other think that talking about hair trivializes the issue and ignores the many other causes of lack of physical activity (lack of time, work and family demands, dangerous living conditions, etc.).

However, as noted in the NYT article, there is scientific evidence to back up the Surgeon General’s comments,

When researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina sampled 103 black women from the area, they found that about a third exercised less because they were concerned it would jeopardize their hair.


[S]tudies have shown that black men and women are more likely to see a doctor and pay attention to their health when prodded by their barbers and hairdressers and that they see hairstylists as health ambassadors of sorts.

Health communicators have tried to convince people for decades to get more exercise and eat right, yet obesity rates continue to creep upward. Is it time to look for the underlying reasons — the socio-cultural context — instead of solely focusing on the bigger picture items? Let us know what you think!


How to get the message through

Here’s a ‘shocking’ headline from a recent U.S. News & World Report story: “Healthy behaviors will help you live longer.”

Longitudinal data collected by researchers at the CDC shows that, according to the article,

Those who embraced four healthy behaviors — not smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity and avoiding excessive alcohol use — were 63 percent less likely to die early from any cause than those with none of those healthy habits.

There is little surprising information in this story. Perhaps the surprise is that the growing body of evidence proving a healthy lifestyle and not miracle drugs will increase longevity has done little to change various policies related to health or traditional modes of health communication.

What innovative, theory-driven message designs could better get across the importance of healthy lifestyles? Should these messages be targeted to youth, their parents, policy makers, or who else? Are there possible creative changes to rules and regulations that would nudge people toward healthy lifestyles without being overly burdensome on society?

FDA cigarette label

Tobacco companies sue FDA over graphic warning labels

We’ve reported before on the FDA’s latest proposed warning labels for cigarette packages, the ones including a man breathing through a tracheotomy hole, a small child being harmed by smoke, a  cadaver, and teeth and gums mangled by cancer, among others.

The major tobacco companies have decided to fight this proposed labels and are suing the FDA. These five companies – R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Commonwealth, Liggett, and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco – argue the government is violating their First Amendment rights to free speech by forcing them to tell clients not to buy a lawful product.

What do you think? Is this an issue of free speech or public health? Where is the balance? Should we put graphic warning labels with pictures of people who have lost limbs due to diabetes on McDonald’s Big Macs? Should cigarettes be outlawed altogether due to their deadly nature and high costs to society? Or, should personal freedom trump all in America?


Back-to-school health issues

It is that time of year again, time to load up the kiddies with their new clothes and supplies onto the bus for another round of schooling. Back-to-school time brings about many health issues, from immunizations to food allergies, from the nutritional value of school lunches to the length of physical education classes.

There’s another health problem associated with school, but it is less discussed: anxiety. From preschool to graduate school, stress over future responsibilities can cause some students to perform poorly or develop more serious anxiety and depression conditions.

The Naperville Sun recently interviewed a clinical therapist about back-to-school anxiety;

“It’s normal for kids to feel butterflies at the start of a school year, but later in the year, you might hear another plea for a day off because of some vague ailment,” Dr. Koehler says. “An important thing you can do for your child is not to help them avoid anxiety. Instead, encourage them to experience the feeling and manage it. Avoidance can cause anxiety to snowball.”

The article goes on to offer tips for dealing with school-related anxiety, such as living in the now, taking deep breaths when feeling tense, and getting organized.

Upstream asks you: Have school officials, mental health professionals and health communicators done enough to spread the word about how to recognize and treat school-related anxiety? While most schools have guidance counselors, is that enough to help all students who might be suffering?

French fries

The multi-sided story that is obesity

News about obesity is common in the health sections of newspapers, broadcasts and websites. We all know Americans are large and growing larger, and that there are physical, emotional and monetary costs associated with the obesity epidemic. NPR is exploring these costs and other issues in an ongoing series about obesity called “Living Large.

The story of Holmes County, Miss., presently the most obese county in America, delves into details such as the need for more busses since seats that previously sat three children now only provide enough room for two as well as the efforts of local farmers to help provide produce at a reasonable price.

“Big Fat Stereotypes Play Out On The Small Screen” examines Hollywood’s role in setting up cultural prejudices related to obesity, while “French Are Getting Fatter, Too” outlines the spreading vulnerability of other cultures to America’s large-living ways.

What do you think of this series? Is presenting multiple sides of a complex story more than people want to hear, or is it a better way of getting audiences interested? What lessons can health communication practitioners take from this series and this type of storytelling?


A Rinderpest outbreak in 18th Century Netherlands, depicted by Jacobus Eussen

Rinderpest is gone, but will other diseases follow?

You probably haven’t heard of rinderpest, but the animal disease recently made history when the United Nations anointed it only the second disease ever to be irradiated from the planet (smallpox was the first).

While it was primarily a plague of cattle, Donald McNeil Jr. writes in the New York Times about the important role rinderpest has played in human history;

It has been blamed for speeding the fall of the Roman Empire, aiding the conquests of Genghis Khan and hindering those of Charlemagne, opening the way for the French and Russian Revolutions, and subjugating East Africa to colonization.

McNeil Jr. goes on to report how rinderpest met its end while other diseases remain stubbornly present: polio, measles, iodine deficiency, and more;

The eradication of rinderpest shows what can be done when field commanders combine scientific advances and new tactics.

Wars and conflict across the globe prolonged efforts by veterinarians to end the disease. However, the successful elimination of rinderpest maybe a guide for those hoping to finish off other diseases. Nonetheless, the reminder that this is only the second disease to be wiped out should give caution to those hoping to end other diseases.

Does the language of elimination, be it an end to cancer or AIDS, leave too many people disheartened when the end does not come after decades of battling? Should health communicators avoid elimination discourse, or is it still a useful tool for motivating action and advocacy? Should health policies aim for eradication or control and containment of disease?


Weekly round-up

Here’s what we’ve been reading this week. Let us know what you think, and tell us what health communication news is on your mind.

Berkley Nutrition Label Contest winner

Designers, journalism school try to help regulators

Tara Parker-Pope recently reported for the New York Times’ Well blog about a University of California, Berkley, School of Journalism project to design a more beautiful and more effective food label.

The contest is not endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration, but the unique ideas flowing from it are likely to be considered in the FDA’s redesign of nutrition labels, reports Parker-Pope.

“We asked food thinkers and design minds to come together and give advice on how they might rethink the food label and bring some insight into how design impacts choice,’’ said Lily Mihalik, co-creator of the project and a fellow in the News21 program, which is a journalism fellowship supported by the Carnegie and Knight Foundations. “There are a lot of things right with the current label, but at the same time people are confused. The question is whether a new nutrition facts label could help people make more educated decisions.’’

You can see all the entries at Berkley’s News21 website (click here). Click on the link, and let us know what you think of these proposed labels. Do you want the FDA to adopt one of them, if so, which one? What principles should the FDA use as focus points when choosing new food labels? Will the labels make a real difference in how Americans chose what, and how much, to eat?