‘Information is not knowledge’: Communication of Scientific Evidence and how it can help us make the right decisions

Every one of us is required to make many decisions: from small decisions, such as what shoes to wear with an outfit or whether to have a second slice of cake; to larger decisions, such as whether to apply for a new job or what school to send our children to. For decisions where the outcome can have a large impact we don’t want to play a game of ‘blind man’s buff’ and make a decision at random. We do our utmost to ensure that whatever decision we arrive at, it is the right one. We go through a process of getting hold of information from a variety of sources we trust and processing that knowledge to help us make up our minds. And in this digital age, we have access to more information than ever before.

When it comes to our health, we are often invited to be involved in making shared decisions about our own care as patients. Because it’s our health that’s at stake, this can bring pressures of not only making a decision but also making the right decision. Arriving at a wrong decision can have significant consequences, such as over- or under-medication or missing out from advances in medicine. But how do we know how to make those decisions and where do we get our information from? Before we start taking a new course of medication, for example, how can we find out if the drugs are safe and effective, and how can we find out the risks as well as the benefits?

The Academy of Medical Sciences produced a report, ‘Enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicine’,[1] which examines what changes would be necessary to help patients make better-informed decisions about taking medication. It is often the case that there is robust scientific evidence that can be useful in helping patients and clinicians make the right choices. However, this information can be difficult to find, hard to understand, and cast adrift in a sea of poor-quality or misleading information. With so much information available, some of it conflicting – is it any surprise that in a Medical Information Survey, almost two-thirds of British adults would trust experiences of friends and family compared to data from clinical trials, which only 37% of British adults would trust?[2]

The report offers recommendations on how scientific evidence can be made available to enable people to weigh up the pros and cons of new medications and arrive at a decision they are comfortable with. These recommendations include: using NHS Choices as a ‘go to’ hub of clear, up-to-date information about medications, with information about benefits and risks that is easy to understand; improving the design, layout and content of patient information leaflets; giving patients longer appointment times so they can have more detailed discussions about medications with their GP; and a traffic-light system to be used by the media to endorse the reliability of scientific evidence.

This is all good news for anyone having to decide whether to start taking a new drug. I would welcome the facility of going to a well-designed website with clear information about the risks and benefits of taking particular drugs rather than my current approach of asking friends and family (most of whom aren’t medically trained), searching online, and reading drug information leaflets that primarily present long lists of side-effects.

Surely this call for clear, accessible information about scientific evidence is just as relevant to all areas of medical research, including applied health. Patients and the public have a right to know how scientific evidence underpinning important decisions in care is generated and to be able to understand that information. Not only do patients and the public also make decisions about aspects of their care, such as whether to give birth at home or in hospital, or whether to take a day off work to attend a health check, but they should also be able to find and understand evidence that explains why care is delivered in a particular way, such as why many GPs now use a telephone triage system before booking in-person appointments. Researchers, clinicians, patients and communicators of research all have a part to play.

In CLAHRC West Midlands, we’re trying to ‘do our bit’. We aim to make accessible a sound body of scientific knowledge through different information channels and our efforts include:

  • Involving patients and the public to write lay summaries of our research projects on our website so people can find out about the research we do.
  • Communication of research evidence in accessible formats, such as CLAHRC BITEs, which are reviewed by our Public Advisors.
  • Method Matters, a series aimed to give members of the public a better understanding of concepts in Applied Health Research.

The recommendations from the Academy of Medical Sciences can provide a useful starting point for further discussions on how we can communicate effectively in applied health research and ensure that scientific evidence, rather than media hype or incomplete or incorrect information, is the basis for decision-making.

— Magdalena Skrybant, CLAHRC WM PPIE Lead

References:

  1. The Academy of Medical Sciences. Enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicine. London: Academy of Medical Sciences; 2017.
  2. The Academy of Medical Sciences. Academy of Medical Sciences: Medical Information Survey. London: Academy of Medical Sciences; 2016
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One thought on “‘Information is not knowledge’: Communication of Scientific Evidence and how it can help us make the right decisions”

  1. All good stuff Magdalena. I wouldn’t disagree with any of it, but we’ve hardly begun communicating with a wider public audience. Richard Lilford’s article in this blog contained a straightforwardly argued comparison between CBT & Mindfulness. Just the sort of material to help people understand, and make the right decisions for themselves. All too often I read pages and pages of text promoted by various NHS bodies in the name of public education. We need to go far the beyond the bites taking a leaf out of public engagement campaigns such as Mind’s Time to Change

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