Learning How Little We Know

Scientist in full protective hazmat suitTypically, I make suggestions at the end of each blog to help us improve our writing. But with today’s challenging topic, I’d like to know YOUR thoughts, a favor that may help alleviate the problems I discuss below.

Every Tuesday I look forward to the New York Times’s weekly section on science. But a recent edition stopped me cold, because it pointed to some serious communication challenges about our understanding of health and disease.

The first article, “Learning How Little We Know” by James Gorman, discusses the surge in brain research, suggesting that while significant advances have been achieved, there are still “great gaps in understanding.” Just determining how one being begins to draw a distinction between itself and the world – how a brain sorts a flood of data coming in from the outside world and gives it meaning – is still mystifying to scientists.

Another article was entitled “The Epidemics of Confusion,” by Lawrence Altman, M.D., which compared the early hysterics about the AIDS epidemic with the recent freak out about Ebola. “Health officials have had ample time – years – to polish their language skills,” he says. “Yet the phrase ‘bodily fluids’ is again with us, and confusion has arisen over whether the virus can be ‘airborne’ as officials try to explain that the Ebola virus is not dispersed like influenza and measles viruses… so history repeats.”

The third article, “Retesting Breast Cancer Axioms” by Jane Brody, notes how American women “face conflicting advice about whether to be screened for breast cancer, at what age and how often. The decisions they make are often more strongly influenced by fear or a friend’s experience than by a thorough understanding of the benefits and risks of mammography.” Too few women are equipped to evaluate what was called “considerable uncertainty and complex trade-offs.”

So, scientists are still trying to understand how our brain works, health officials still can’t seem to quell the general population’s fears about a dangerous but controllable health risk, and American women remain confused about basic, preventive breast cancer care.

It’s the kind of dilemma you might find in an undergraduate communications course – how simple language, clear definitions and appropriate background information can make a difference in the way people understand complexity.

The favor

Without violating anyone’s privacy, I’d like to compile a list of poorly communicated health issues that you may know about personally or have heard about – migraines, bunions, open-heart surgery, type 2 diabetes, anything. Use the comments section below or just email them to me. With your help, I’d like to come up with some useful guidelines that can help healthcare professionals and patients understand each other. (Perhaps, my fellow communicators can help with that, too?)

Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving,


2 comments on “Learning How Little We Know

  1. Charlie Garland on

    Don – I think this is a terrific idea. I hope you get plenty of contributors. One that comes to mind for me is something I heard quite recently, and that is that I’ve never (well, for the first 50 or so years of my life) heard a doctor or nurse tell me that after taking a prescription of antibiotics, that it is a good idea to follow that up with nutrients that provide probiotics!

    But a basic understanding of the mechanisms that antibiotics follow would have helped that become a lot better clarified. Antibiotics tend to wipe out “everything” — killing off the bad organisms but also taking out the good organisms with it. And so the good guys need to get replenished. There are significant health risks in not doing this. Makes perfect sense to me…but nobody had ever explained that before.

    Ironically, this mechanism sounds similar to the way chemotherapy works. It’s probably similar to a number of health and medical dynamics. Perhaps your data collection and analysis might reveal some of these?

    Best of luck with this study, Don. Let me know if I can help in any way.

  2. Glen Franklin on

    One general theme that I have experienced with health care professionals is in not providing the big picture. Each interaction is an island unto itself, with the patient (or parent) left to integrate all the discrete interations into a conceptual whole.

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