Health professionals can better communicate the health effects of climate change using information that promotes action rather than confusion, according to a recent article by a UO researcher.
Professor Ellen PetersPhilip H. Knight, president and director of the UO Center for Science Communication Research, was lead author on the article, “Communicating statistics on the health effects of climate change.” It was published July 21 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Peters and co-author Dr. Renee Salasof the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, translated research findings on the increase in deaths from extreme heat that can be attributed to climate change.
Peters spoke with UO communications major Emmily Bristol about the magazine’s comment and what it means:
Q: Your comment speaks to how health care professionals are also science communicators, interpreting statistics and research to inform patients. How can health care workers help educate the public about the health effects of climate change?
Answer: Because they are trusted communicators, health professionals can educate the public on the health effects of climate change by strategically delivering the facts in ways people can understand. They can make their messages even more powerful by including narratives, case stories about the impact of climate change on people’s health, to help patients understand the very real link that exists between climate change and health and the importance of his with their lives today. Finally, they can suggest concrete, actionable steps that patients can take. Doing so can help to avoid the despair that climate change sometimes causes, replacing it with faith and action.
Q: You say that statistics can win people’s trust. What is the best way to convey such data to the public?
Answer: Statistics are just numbers. When healthcare professionals simply dump data on patients, those patients can feel overwhelmed and lack understanding. Instead, health professionals must begin by deciding on a purpose for the communication, and then they must choose thoughtfully and strategically how to present the information. There are a number of key strategies, including: 1) providing a meaningful context, such as through the use of comparisons; and 2) reducing cognitive load, which may mean not providing all the information at once or may mean doing some math instead of asking patients to do it.
Question: There is an example in the comments of journalists using data and statistics without proper context. How can journalists do better?
Answer: They can learn evidence-based techniques to help make data come alive for people. In my class on science communication and decision making, for example, we go through psychological theory and concrete examples of how journalists and other communicators can draw attention to important numbers, reduce how difficult they are for people to understand and help people understand not just what the numbers are, but what they mean for the decision at hand. By learning theory and examples, students learn how to represent numbers in specific situations and how to extend the theory about representing numbers to other situations they encounter.
Q: The comment states that people “can easily get overwhelmed by overly complex information.” How do we break down a big topic, like climate change, into easier-to-understand parts?
A: When it comes to the big topic of climate change, I would recommend looking at one example at a time and preferably one that is relevant to your life and local community. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, heat events are something we all can and will feel. Climate change is exacerbating heat waves and intensifying droughts while intensifying wildfires. At the same time, it is increasing heat-related mortality, having negative effects on asthma and heart disease, and increasing heat-related mortality (you can see more on this topic in our commentary). Find out how and when extreme hot days can affect you and how you can protect yourself. This can include staying indoors on particularly hot days and getting to know cooling centers in your area, especially if you don’t have air conditioning or if your power goes out. It might include thinking about how others in your area might be affected and what you can do to help, whether it’s donating money or time or calling on your congressional representative to take action that reduces the burning of fossil fuels for address the root causes of climate change.
Q: How does this comment relate to the work you are doing at UO?
Answer: As a decision psychologist and director of the Center for Science Communication Research, I study and teach about the basic building blocks of human judgment and decision-making and their connections to effective science communication techniques. I am particularly interested in the impact of statistics and emotional responses, both of which are critical to perceiving the health risks of climate change and acting to reduce them.
Because about one-third of US adults are uncountable, presenting numerical facts to people without considering their comprehensibility and usability is like throwing good money after bad. Therefore, communicators must present numbers in ways that make sense to people who cannot easily understand them otherwise.
This aligns perfectly with our mission, which is to make complex science useful to improve people’s lives. Climate change is arguably the most important issue facing us today. By helping the public understand these interconnected issues of climate change and health, we can protect health today and motivate action toward an equitable transition away from fossil fuels.