Are you prepared for the next generation of science communication?
These days, inaccurate science can spread online like an out-of-control pandemic, but medical communicators are often the first line of defense against medical disinformation.
By paying attention to the advances in technology and the needs of particular audiences, medical writers and editors can help create and disseminate materials that will help consumers assess conflicting claims.
Clarity and Transparency
Science and medical communicators need to meet audiences where they are by creating materials that are accessible, transparent, and useful. This article on health communication with “Gen Z” (a racially and ethnically diverse group of people born between 1997 and 2012) stresses their high reliance on visual, digital, and mobile communication.
Transparency means different things to different people, but in general, these audiences appreciate mobile-friendly platforms, consistent and visible mission and values, and customized social media content.
Social Media Strategies
When COVID-19 upended life as we knew it, misinformation began to spread exponentially. Public health agencies needed to harness the power of social media to communicate effectively about risk and prevention.
In an article in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, researchers found that prominent international health organizations increasingly used Instagram for communicating about prevention, vigilance, and gratitude. “An overwhelming level of engagement was observed for posts representing celebrity, clarification, and infographics,” the authors write. In particular, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) were able to counter misinformation on social media using these approaches.
When an entire generation of young people cannot recall a time before smartphones, mastering visual communication is an essential skill for medical communicators.
In an article titled “Think and Communicate Visually” in the AMWA Journal, author Brian Bass reported on a presentation at the Medical Writing & Communication Conference featuring three experts: Cynthia L. Kryder, MS, Lori Alexander, MTPW, ELS, and Jia You, Interactive Graphics Editor, Science magazine.
The experts explored the ways that visuals enhance storytelling, explaining that the mind processes visual information more rapidly than words. Kryder cited a study that found that people read 20 to 28 percent of words on a page and presented strategies for boosting comprehension. For example, a pie chart can quickly demonstrate a part-to-whole relationship, tables are an excellent way to communicate comparisons, and line graphs are useful for tracking trends over time.
Infographics are also being used more often in clinical settings because patients can easily understand, share, and engage with the information.
By getting creative and incorporating more visual communication strategies, medical writers can bring new dimensions to their work and reach audiences that respond to engaging visual content.
One exemplary model for exploring these critical topics is the Unbiased Science Podcast. Hosted by the 2023 McGovern Award recipients, Drs. Jessica Steier and Andrea Love, the podcast, blog, and website are designed to help people become better consumers of scientific information.
According to its website, the project is “devoted to objective, critical appraisal of evidence on health topics relevant to listeners’ daily lives.” They tackle hot topics like vaccines, fad diets, and supplements, examining the claims and providing links to objective, accurate sources on the issues.
Recent podcast topics include breast cancer screening, alternative therapies, and tick-borne illness. The podcast titles deserve another award for creativity: “The Carnivore Diet Is a Big Mis-Steak,” “We Shih Tzu Not, Hypoallergenic Pets Aren’t a Thing,” and “We Love Gut Health with Every Fiber of Our Bean.”
As the titles show, humor is part of the Unbiased Science approach. The organization also creates excellent infographics that are shared around the world by educational institutions, public health authorities, and medical professionals.
The friendly, approachable tone of Unbiased Science reflects some savvy thinking on how to reach the next generation of science communicators and consumers.
Countering Misinformation and Disinformation
Misinformation and disinformation are reaching epidemic proportions online. Medical communicators can help protect the public by disseminating accessible, evidence-based science through popular channels.
One important note: Although many people use the terms interchangeably, there is a critical difference between misinformation and disinformation. According to this definition by the American Psychological Association (APA), “Misinformation is false or inaccurate information — getting the facts wrong. Disinformation is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead.”
Both misinformation and disinformation threaten scientific integrity. The difference is intention. Medical communicators should use all the tools at their disposal to counteract the antiscience rhetoric that proliferates online.
After all, the public’s understanding of science depends on medical communicators.