64 public health professionals registered for the Texas Public Health Association’s (TPHA) preconference session: Scrutinizer Challenge Initiative – Using Strategic Thinking to Examine Headlines that Impact the Public’s Health. The session was sponsored by the TPHA Epidemiology Section. The largest group of professionals that attended the session were epidemiologists/those with an epidemiology background (38%) followed by professionals working in community health/health promotion roles (18%). Students and nurses each accounted for about 8% of registrants (a combined total of 16%).
31 out of 64 public health professionals that signed up for the pre-conference session completed a pre-assessment. Assumptions made when completing the pre-assessment included:
- Headlines are generally attached to some type of news article
- News articles generally quote or reference specific data sources
- Research and/or surveillance studies generally serve as a data source for health-related news articles
- The methodology/methods section of a research study frames the limitations of the data that has been collected and analyzed. It also frames what conclusions can/cannot or may/may not be made based on a given data source.
The pre-assessment asked questions to gauge the extent of exposure to health-related news headlines, emotions resulting from exposure to health-related news headlines, and skills/general practice of public health professionals when it comes to responding to, sharing, and interpreting health-related news headlines. 97% of respondents reported being exposed to headlines on a routine basis (i.e. daily or a few times a week). Regarding emotions resulting from exposure to health-related news headlines, respondents were asked to select all emotions that applied (i.e. selections were not mutually exclusive). 87% of survey respondents reported experiencing positive emotions after reflecting on a health-related news headline they’ve read compared to 68% of respondents who experienced positive emotions after reflecting on a health-related news headline that was shared with them by someone they knew. The top positive emotions experienced were affirmation, enthusiasm, clarity on an issue or topic, and empowerment (52-70% of respondents). 100% of survey respondents reported experiencing negative emotions after reflecting on a health-related news headline they’ve read compared to 77% of respondents who experienced negative emotions after reflecting on a news headline that was shared with them by someone they knew. The top negative emotions experienced were anger, sadness, confusion, and shock (48-67% of respondents). Peace and despair were experienced by the least amount of public health professionals when reading health-related news headlines- less than 5% of respondents reported experiencing peace while 20-25% of respondents reported experiencing despair.
The perceived skills of public health professionals with reviewing health-related headlines, the articles associated with these headlines, and data sources referenced in these associated articles were also assessed. 84% of survey respondents reported having the skills necessary to accurately break down the information that is presented in health-related headlines. 94% of respondents reported having the skills necessary to accurately break down the information that is presented in articles that are attached to health-related headlines. 81% percent of respondents reported having the skills necessary to accurately analyze the data sources that are quoted and/or referenced in articles attached to health-related headlines. 62% of respondents reported having the skills necessary to identify whether an appropriate methodology was used to generate the data that are quoted and/or referenced in articles tied to health-related headlines. All except one respondent reported having access to other professionals that have the skills necessary to accurately break down the information presented in health-related headlines, and professionals that have the skills necessary to accurately break down the information presented in articles that are attached to health-related headlines. Two respondents reported not having access to other professionals that have the skills necessary to accurately analyze the data sources quoted and/or referenced in articles attached to health-related headlines. 87% of respondents reported that they have access to other professionals with the skills necessary to identify whether an appropriate methodology was used to generate the data that are quoted and/or referenced in articles tied to health-related headlines. Table 1 below shows how respondents were applying their skills and engaging with others in their spheres of influence prior to participating in the Scrutinizer Challenge preconference session.
Although the majority of respondents read the articles attached to health-related headlines (77%), this percentage decreases to slightly more than half when it comes to digging deeper to review the methodology behind the studies referenced in articles (55%). A similar trend is seen when headlines are shared with others: Although 65% of respondents reported encouraging others to read the articles attached to headlines, only 19% encourage others to review the methodology behind the studies referenced in articles. Overall, 55% of respondents agree with the statement that, in general, health-related headlines empower the public to take action. However, only 23% of respondents agree that health-related headlines (in general) present information accurately and 16% believe that health-related headlines provide solutions to complex problems.
The premise behind the Scrutinizer Challenge initiative is that epidemiologists and other public health professionals have the tools/skills needed to examine hype in health-related headlines and deliver reliable messages to communities by:
- Identifying and determining the credibility of data sources tied to headlines
- Comparing the findings of data sources to claims being made
- Assessing the overall implications of news stories or study headlines and
- Creating analyses and short, actionable summaries to disseminate findings to the general public as well as specific populations
Scrutinizing headlines and contributing to reliable messages for communities is important because these headlines have implications for the public, leading to hype or awareness. Hype may result in fear, anxiety, confusion, despair, or even contribute to a false sense of security. Public health professionals can counter the hype by contributing to efforts which inspire action and awareness through informed discussions, changes in policy, changes in practice, political action, and empowerment.
The data collected from the pre-assessment support the assumption that epidemiologists and public health professionals are equipped to scrutinize headlines, seeing as the majority of respondents reported that they have the skills needed to break down the information in health-related headlines, accurately analyze data sources, and determine whether an appropriate methodology was used to generate data that are quoted or referenced in articles (or have access to others with the skills listed above). The data also indicate that public health professionals are routinely exposed to and can be personally affected by health-related headlines. 100% of respondents reported experiencing negative emotions when reflecting on health-related headlines compared to 87% reporting experiencing positive emotions. 77% of respondents reported experiencing negative emotions after reflecting on a news headline that was shared with them by someone they knew compared to 68% reporting positive emotions. In both cases, it appears that negative emotions were experienced by more respondents than positive emotions and that sharing headlines with others may also have some impact.
Now what, So What?
Although there are public health professionals who see the value of the Scrutinizer Challenge initiative and specific individuals (administrators, public health professionals, students, as well individuals from other fields) have taken the time to voice their appreciation of the initiative, it has been difficult to spark active involvement. The TPHA preconference session was no exception, although requests were made for workshops to be delivered to teams and smaller groups of professionals at public health agencies. Attempts to assess the reason for the lack of involvement among TPHA Epidemiology Section members fell short due to there being a very low response rate to an electronic survey that was sent out months before the preconference session. The response rate for the post-assessment after the preconference was also low. Further exploration should be done to see what is preventing public health professionals, particularly epidemiologists, from actively participating in the initiative either through an organizational framework or individually. Reviewing feedback from evaluations submitted after the session may also shed some light of what is preventing public health professionals from actively participating in the initiative. It is possible that some individuals believe that the efforts they are currently engaging in are sufficient, or that there are other more pressing needs for them to attend to using their skills. For now, the initiative has been shared this year at the International Society for Disease Surveillance conference (ISDS) and the Texas Public Health Association annual meeting. An abstract has been submitted to the American Public Health Association annual meeting as well. In the future, an assessment may be conducted to see if there has been any change to how preconference attendees now engage with and share health-related news headlines.