January 19, 2016

The Cacophony of Science and Health Information

People receive information about health and science from many sources. These include specialized health and science reporters, general assignment reporters, health educators, scientists, health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, insurers, and medical systems. And, of course, people hear health and science news from friends and relatives, who are sometimes the most persuasive of all, though not necessarily the most informed.

The formats and tools through which people add to their knowledge of health and science range from long in-depth articles with balanced sourcing to promotional ads for particular products or service providers. These materials include announcements, claims, advertisements, and hype about matters affecting health. In just one recent night, the airwaves carried multiple pitches for a miracle drug on prime time and, later in the evening, frightening messages from a law firm about litigation related to the same product. In this cacophony of information, it’s hard for an individual—or on a broader level, a community—to sort out what is useful or relevant to current needs.

At the same time, many people don’t have access to much of this competing content. They experience a “radio silence,” leaving questions and misunderstandings from lack of information and resources or the inability to use them. For those without access to information, there are direct and costly consequences: poorer health outcomes.

Our challenge is to create credible health information in this environment that is useful for a broad range of people. It’s also to enrich public understanding of the interplay between science and health. On this site, we’ll provide a few rules of the road that may be helpful in creating material. In the next post, we’ll start with the first step: understanding what is sometimes a huge gap between the goals of scientists and the people who report on their work for the public.

Please feel free to email the NIH Science, Health and Public Trust Communications working group with your thoughts and suggestions.