Category: Interpersonal Communication


Direct-to-doctor marketing: What are students learning in med school?

Public health officials and journalists aren’t the only ones communicating about health issues. Drug companies spend billions of dollars on direct-to-consumer (DtC) advertisements each year. However, they are also communicating about these drugs with medical students — your soon-to-be doctors.

A HealthDay News article recently reported on a study done at Harvard and published in the journal PLoS Medicine that found 90 percent of clinical medical students receive marketing materials from drug companies, and most find no ethical problems with taking gifts from those same companies. The article states,

Their justifications included financial hardship or pointing out that most other medical students accepted such gifts. Nearly two-thirds of the medical students claimed that drug company promotions, gifts or interactions with sales representatives did not affect their impartiality regarding drug makers and their products.

The authors of the study suggest reforms are needed to shield medical students from marketing pressures due to the often misunderstood effects of advertising.

Why do these companies spend so much money on marketing and advertising if it isn’t effective? Can doctors be truly unbiased when considering treatment options for patients? What else besides rules about contact between medical students and drug companies could help reduce the pressure to use certain pharmaceutical treatments? How much do patients contribute when they ask doctors for drugs they’ve seen on television?

You’ve got…Gonorrhea: An evaluation of STD e-card notifications

Maybe you’ve heard of an e-health tool that’s been around since 2004 where you can send identified or anonymous e-cards to your past sexual partners to notify them that you’ve recently been diagnosed with an STD and encourage them to get tested? If you knew about the STD e-card tool, would you use it if you were diagnosed with an STD? That’s the question a study published in May in Sexually Transmitted Diseases set out to answer.

The CDC estimates that in the U.S. there are about 19 million new STD infections each year. One way to disrupt the spread of STDs is to encourage people who have been diagnosed to notify their recent partners who may also have been exposed to the STD. Laws about partner notification requirements vary by state and considering more than 80% of Americans use the Internet to search for health information, it makes sense to develop ways for people to use the Internet to provide sexual health information to their partners. Since 2004, more than 30,000 people have sent STD e-cards through a website called inSPOT to notify their past sexual partners that they may have been exposed to an STD. The e-cards also include region-specific information about STD testing and treatment resources.

The study published in Sexually Transmitted Diseases set out to evaluate how to make people in a Colorado clinic aware of the STD e-card tool and encourage its use. The STD e-card website was briefly promoted in Denver through website banners, newspaper ads, and radio ads. The results of a survey in a Denver-based clinic indicated that desire to use an e-card to notify partners about STD risk was low (less than 5%) compared to a strong preference to tell partners in-person (nearly 90%). What do these results mean for how we might be able to better use e-health tools? If the idea of anonymously and quickly being able to notify sexual partners of potentially embarrassing news seems appealing, why do you think people reported such reluctance to use the e-card service?

Italian Scientists on Trial for Words at Press Conference

Last week an Italian judge ruled that seven scientists will stand trial for charges of manslaughter stemming from what one of the seven scientists said during a press conference just days before an earthquake and what the other six scientists didn’t say. The 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit L’Aquila, Italy and tragically killed more than 300 people on April 6, 2009.

Fears about an impending earthquake near L’Aquila had been heightened in the weeks leading up to the actual quake because of seismic activity and the predictions of another scientist. In response to these fears, six days before the terrible earthquake the seven scientists, members of a national risk committee, participated in a press conference about the potential for an impending earthquake. During the press conference, one member of the risk committee allegedly said, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” This statement was not corrected or countered by the other six members of the risk committee. Townspeople have said they would have left their homes if not for the reassurances of the risk committee and so prosecutors have moved forward with charges against all seven scientists. At issue is how these scientists communicated a scientifically uncertain risk (predicting if an earthquake will occur) and the question is whether their reassurances that minimized that risk are tantamount to manslaughter.

From a health communication perspective, this tragic case brings to light issues about how scientists (or doctors and researchers for that matter) communicate about risk with the public. How should scientists communicate scientific uncertainty? Where is the line between providing the public with the best available information and creating a panic? I have often wondered how to best summarize potential risks of health recommendations in digestible sound bites that are accurate, but don’t cause a panic. In the case of the Italian scientists, should they be charged with manslaughter?


Tablet computer

College health centers go high tech

A recent MSNBC story highlights a growing trend at campus counseling centers: the use of technology to help handle an overload of patients. AP reporter Marth Irvine spoke with health professionals at multiple U.S. campuses and found that,

To help deal with the demand, more campus counseling centers are using computerized questionnaires, some that generate color-coded charts, to help them flag a serious problem more quickly than traditional paper-and-pencil evaluations… Many counselors say high-tech methods like these appeal to students, who are often more comfortable communicating with smart phones, iPads and laptops.

Psychologists interviewed in the article noted that the computerized feedback is often more forthcoming than what patients are willing to say in person, especially if they are not entirely comfortable with their therapists. Fifteen schools are using an electronic program called the Behavioral Health Measure, or BHM. Developed by a psychology professor, it has both short and long versions, depending on the waiting room time. Additionally, reports Irvine,

A psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins has developed a free service called Mood 24/7 that sends a daily text message to its users, asking them to rate their mood on a scale of 1 to 10. The data can then be accessed by the user, their mental health counselor and even family and friends.

What do you think of this use of technology to treat college students for mental health problems? What are the possible drawbacks? How could it be expanded outside of the counseling and psychological health realm to serve other health problems prevalent in the higher education setting?

Help make Mother’s Day healthy

Mother’s Day kicks off “Women’s Health Week” (May 8 – 14). The CDC and other public health agencies want everyone to remember that the health of America’s 83 Million moms is a crucial component of the nation’s health, and has a list of activities that will help;

Regular physical activity, healthful eating, healthy weight maintenance, quitting tobacco use, managing stress, protecting themselves from injury, and periodic check-ups are a few of the many actions that can lead to safer and healthier lives.

Still need to get mom a present? Here are the CDC’s suggestions for healthy Mother’s Day gifts:

  • Offer to change the batteries in the smoke detector if they haven’t been changed recently.
  • Help her get prepared for spring and summer storms.
  • Get her a fabulous spring hat for sun protection against skin cancer.
  • If she’s a senior, help reduce her risk for falls by making her home safer. Falls can lead to injuries, such as hip fractures and head traumas.  Falls are also the leading cause of non-fatal injuries for all children ages 0 to 19.
  • Learn together the common symptoms of a heart attack and what to do in case of one. Make the Call. Don’t Miss a Beat.
  • If she is pregnant or a new mom, sign her up for free text messages from text4baby.

You can even send Mom a healthy e-card from the CDC’s website. What healthy activities will you be doing with your moms this week? Also, don’t forget, the Monday after Mother’s Day is always National Women’s Check-up Day, so consider calling your doc and making an appointment.

Questionnaire may provide earlier autism diagnoses

The New York Times recently ran a story on how a questionnaire administered at a child’s 1-year check up can detect autism and other developmental delays. However, the test has a high rate of false positives.

Photo at left: Although the brain of a person with autism sometimes uses different areas, looking at the brain isn’t the only way to see if a child might be autistic.

Researchers examining the effectiveness of the questionnaire had pediatricians in San Diego use the tool and then followed the babies that had been identified as potentially having autism or other developmental issues. Out of the nearly 190 children they followed, 25 percent did not end up having autism or another developmental issue, according to the article.

Previous research has shown that early intervention can be more effective,  so it seems that getting a diagnosis early could be useful and helpful to the child and the parents.

However, with a quarter of diagnoses being wrong, it seems like communication could play a very big role. What do you see as the role of communication? How does one communicate that a test may provide false positives and make this understandable?


friends at the beach

NPR asks: “Do our friends make us fatter?”

Are your friends sabatoging your summer beach bod? Many research results say it’s possible, if not plausible. NPR’s Robert Krulwich asks in his blog “Krulwich Wonders…” if our friends make us fatter.

Re-reporting, from a blog by Jonah Lehrer, Krulwich discusses the stunning results of some correlational research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, who analyzed 32 years of data for trends related to obesity:

Christakis and Fowler reported that when two people are friends for a long while, if one of them becomes obese, the chances that the friend will do the same increased by 57 percent. That’s a big number, far more predictive than if those two people shared genes associated with obesity, says Jonah.

Many health behavior theories note that at least somewhere in the process, peers and social factors can have some sort of influence on attitudes and actions (e.g. Social Cognitive Theory, the Transtheoretical Model, the Health Belief Model, just to name a few).

What sort of communication campaigns could we produce to target social aspects of obesity? What public policies would help attack obesity from this important angle? Do the news media give enough coverage to this component of the causes of obesity, or do they focus too much on just individual or larger societal/policy levels?

Captain America wants you to call for help

On the brink of defeat by a giant green monster machine, Captain America is saved by the heroic efforts of a nearby boy. Ends up that Captain America saves the boy, though.

Captain America

The Captain America comic titled "A Little Help" by Marvel Comics uses no dialogue to tell a story of a boy who just needs a little help. Will it make a difference with its intended audience? Photo from Marvel Comics and SAMHSA.

He does this not with his strength or fancy shield and cape, but by giving the kid a phone number: 800-273-TALK (8255).

That is the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. John Draper, director of the Lifeline, wrote in a post on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) website that the idea for a popular comic book hero to promote suicide prevention and awareness came from the industry, not from the government;

“When I was a kid, I loved Marvel comic books.  As much as I indulged my imagination in the workings of superheroes back then, I never could have imagined that, decades later, Captain America would be an ally of mine in promoting SAMHSA’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline!”

But how exactly will a comic book help prevent suicide?

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“Tanorexia” problems may begin with mom

tanning bed

Are moms helping their daughters get more than a bronzed complexion?

Teen girls use tan beds. They tan before prom. College girls tan. They tan year-round, but mostly right before spring break. This is no breaking news.

What a recent study has revealed, though, is that the phenomenon all too jokingly called “tanorexia,” meaning when people (usually females but not always) tan way too much and increase their chances of skin cancer way too much, can be highly influenced by mothers.

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