Scholars from around the world gathered for a conference  Friday and Saturday at the Institute for Social Research and the Michigan League, where they discussed how to better relay health information.

The main goal of the conference, titled “How We Can Improve Health Science Communication,” was to discuss the most effective methods of information processing, decision making and learning health science information. Health communication helps increase people’s overall wellbeing, disease prevention skills and awareness of their personal habits.  

The conference helped facilitate discussions about what can be done to improve methods of communication regarding health and wellbeing — a topic of increasing importance to college students. In a 2012 survey completed by the University of Southern California American College Health Association, about 19 to 30 percent of undergraduate students reported they exercise regularly, and 5.8 percent ate the recommended fruits and vegetables per day. On the other hand, 23 percent of undergraduates reported that they binge drank (five or more drinks) the last time they had alcohol.

Currently, facts about health and wellbeing are often communicated through brochures, commercials, scholarly articles and social media. More than 40 percent of people said the information they receive through social media affects how they deal with their health and wellness.

Eleven speakers representing a range of fields — public health, psychology, journalism and political science — discussed how topics such language, political beliefs and pre-existing biases can affect what people take away from the health science information presented to them.

Center for Political Studies Director Ken Kollman, an organizer of the event, said this year’s conference featured a range of disciplines to encourage transparent dialogue.

“It’s important to observe interdisciplinary exchanges in action,” Kollman said. “And when you use an interdisciplinary approach, people are usually speaking in a very clear language.”

Kollman said clear communication of health topics allows people to correctly understand health information, and incorrect understanding will affect not only the immediate individuals, but also the overall population and future generations. 

“First of all, it’s important because we are talking about behaviors like adoption of vaccines, or people’s understanding of mastectomies needed for breast cancer, or even climate change,” Kollman said. “The way people receive and understand health information is critical to the behaviors they exhibit and the overall population health for future generations.”

One of the speakers at the event, Sarah Gollust, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, spoke on improving population health — the overall health behaviors and wellness of the world’s population. She discussed how ideas found in public health literature can face resistance from the general public because the ideas may disagree with people’s pre-existing beliefs.

“I am interested in moving away from political values and personal views,” Gollust said. “Does me liking coffee affect if I am defensive against studies that claim that coffee causes cancer?”

Another speaker, David Budescu, a psychology professor at Fordham University, focused on psychological factors affecting health communication. He broke down how the mind chooses what to take away from the information it is given and how miscommunications arise.

“There are very large individual differences in how people comprehend words, which are not easy to anticipate and can create an illusion of false communication,” Budescu explained.

Erica Mirabitur, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, commented on the importance of having speakers from different fields at the conference.

“Health communication pertains to a lot of different issues in politics, health and social reform,” Mirabitur said. “That’s one of the reasons conferences like these are so important: so they can foster many ideas from many different people.”

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