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Limited English Proficiency as a Consideration When Designing Health and Risk Messages  

Maricel G. Santos, Holly E. Jacobson, and Suzanne Manneh

For many decades, the field of risk messaging design, situated within a broader sphere of public health communication efforts, has endeavored to improve its response to the needs of U.S. immigrant and refugee populations who are not proficient speakers of English, often referred to as limited English proficient (LEP) populations. Research and intervention work in this area has sought to align risk messaging design models and strategies with the needs of linguistically diverse patient populations, in an effort to improve patient comprehension of health messages, promote informed decision-making, and ensure patient safety. As the public health field has shifted from person-centered approaches to systems-centered thinking in public health outreach and communication, the focus in risk messaging design, in turn, has moved from a focus on the effects of individual patient misunderstanding and individual patient error on health outcomes, to structural and institutional barriers that contribute to breakdown in communication between patients and healthcare providers. While the impact of limited proficiency in English has been widely documented in multiple spheres of risk messaging communication research, the processes by which members of immigrant and refugee communities actually come to understand sources of risk and act on risk messaging information remain poorly researched and understood. Advances in risk messaging efforts are constrained by outdated views of language and communication in healthcare contexts: well-established lines of thinking in sociolinguistics and language education provide the basis for critical reflection on enduring biases in public health about languages other than English and the people who speak them. By drawing on important findings about language ideologies and language learning, an alternative approach would be to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the linguistic diversity already shaping our everyday lives and the competing views on this diversity that constrain our risk messaging efforts. The discourse surrounding the relationship between LEP and risk messaging often omits a critical examination of the deficit-based narrative that tends to infuse many risk messaging design efforts in the United States. Sociolinguists and language education specialists have documented the enduring struggle against a monolingual bias in U.S. education and healthcare policy that often privileges proficiency in English, and systematically impedes and discriminates against emerging bilingualism and multilingualism. The English-only bias tends to preclude the possibility that risk messaging comprehension for many immigrant and refugee communities may represent a multilingual capacity, as patients make use of multiple linguistic and cultural resources to make sense of healthcare messages. Research in sociolinguistics and immigration studies have established that movement across languages and cultures—a translingual, transcultural competence—is a normative component of the immigrant acculturation process, but these research findings have yet to be fully integrated into risk messaging theory and design efforts. Ultimately, critical examination of the role of language and linguistic identity (not merely a focus on proficiency in English) in risk messaging design should provide a richer, more nuanced picture of the ways that patients engage with health promotion initiatives, at diverse levels of English competence.


Types of Explanations in Health and Risk Messaging  

Katherine E. Rowan

Explanations designed to teach, rather than to support scientific claims in scholarly works, are essential in health and risk communication. Patients explain why they think their symptoms warrant medical attention. Clinicians elicit information from patients and explain diagnoses and treatments. Families and friends explain health and risk concerns to one another. In addition, there are websites, brochures, fact sheets, museum exhibits, health fairs, and news stories explaining health and risk to lay audiences. Unfortunately, research on this important discursive goal is less extensive than is research on persuasion, that is, efforts to gain agreement. One problem is that explanation-as-teaching has not been carefully conceptualized. Some confuse this communication goal and discursive type with its frequent verbal and visual features, such as simple wording or diagrams. Others believe explanation-as-teaching does not exist as a distinctive communication goal, maintaining that all communication is solely persuasive: that is, designed to gain agreement. Explanation-as-teaching is a distinct and important health communication goal. Patient involvement in decision making requires that both clinicians and patients understand options underlying health-care choices. To explore types of explanation-as-teaching, research provides (a) several ways of categorizing health and risk explanations for lay audiences; (b) evidence that certain textual and graphic features overcome predictable confusions, and (c) illustrations of each explanation type. Additionally, explanation types succeed or fail in part because of the social or emotional conditions in which they are presented so it is important to note research on conditions that support patients, families, and clinicians in benefiting from explanations of health and risk complexities and curricula designed to enhance clinicians’ explanatory skill.


Text Features Related to Message Comprehension  

Jessica Gasiorek and R. Kelly Aune

A majority of the extant literature in health and risk message processing focuses—for obvious reasons—on social influence and compliance-gaining. Interpersonal and relational issues with doctors and patients are a secondary focus. In contrast, research that specifically addresses comprehension of health and risk messaging is somewhat scant. However, other domains (e.g., cognitive psychology, reading studies) offer models and studies of comprehension that address message processing more generally. This material can usefully inform research in a health and risk context. An important aspect of any communicative event is the degree to which that event allows interactivity. This can be described in terms of a continuum from static messaging to dynamic messaging. Message features may affect simple comprehension (in the former case) and active understanding (in the latter case) of messaging along this continuum. For static messaging, text features are the dominant focus; for dynamic messaging, how communicators cooperate, collaborate, and adjust their behavior relative to each other’s knowledge states is the focus. Moderators of these effects, which include sources’ dual goals informing and influencing targets, are also important to consider. Examples of this include direct-to-consumer-advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceutical medicines and pharmaceutical companies, which must meet the demands of the government regulatory bodies (e.g., fair and balanced presentation of benefits and risks) while simultaneously influencing the message processing experience of the target to minimize negative perceptions of their products. Impediments to creating understanding can arise in both the highly interactive setting of the face-to-face doctor-patient context as well as more static messaging situations such as PSAs, pamphlets, and pharmaceutical package inserts. Making sense of message comprehension in health and risk communication is complex, and it is complex because it is broad in scope. Health and risk communication runs the gamut of static to dynamic messaging, employing everything from widely distributed patient information leaflets and public service announcements, to interactive web pages and massively connected social networking sites, to the highly interactive and personalized face-to-face meeting between doctor and patient. An equally comprehensive theoretical and methodological tool box must be employed to develop a thorough understanding of health and risk communication.