Health Literacy and Science Communication: Two Sides of the Same Health Communication Coin?

Did you know that October is Health Literacy month?

As part of this month-long focus on clear and understandable health information, the Massachusetts General Hospital Blum Center recently hosted a talk by Stacy Robison, MPH, MPCHES, co-founder of CommunicateHealth—a health education and communication firm—on the issues of health literacy in the digital age and how to create accessible content for adults with limited health literacy skills.

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. (2)

Considering that 72 percent of internet users looked up health information online in the last year, yet half of Americans read at an 8th grade level or below, there’s a clear need for digital health materials that all readers can understand, Robison said.

Robison also emphasized that we can’t write off low health literacy as a health disparity with no feasible solution — individuals in the healthcare field can play a role in addressing the issue by creating comprehensible tools and resources.

She provided the following three strategies for making easier to use materials:

  1. Create content that’s relevant and actionable: Put the most important information first and prioritize behaviors. For example, a webpage titled, “How to prevent asthma at home” is more actionable and appealing to readers than a webpage called “About asthma.”
  2. Display content clearly: Use bullets and short lists (like this one!), and avoid paragraphs with more than three lines of text. Robison’s research has shown that individuals with low literacy levels tend to skip over large chunks of text.
  3. Engage users: Take advantage of the capabilities of digital platforms to create content that’s interactive and shareable, and that uses videos or graphics to illustrate a point when appropriate.

What does this mean for the medical and scientific research community? We here at the Mass General Research Institute are big supporters of good science communication and see many overlaps in the principles of health literacy and the principles of science communication.

Our goal is to provide you with the essentials of a research study in short, easy to digest posts. We try to set the context to help you understand what the research means, and put the big takeaway at the top of the post. We also use different formats such as “five things to know” lists and Q&A to make the information easier on the eyes.

Let us know how we’re doing! What could we do better? What science resources do you look to?

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HUBweek Art of Talking Science Competition Recap

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Last Wednesday the Mass General Research Institute hosted The Art of Talking Science: Rise of the Machines at the Russell Museum at Massachusetts General Hospital.

As part HUBweek’s weeklong festival, this science communication competition challenged researchers focused on artificial intelligence, machine learning and digital health to present their science in four minutes or less. Each contestant received feedback from a panel of celebrity judges and, at the end, one presenter was crowned the winner.

Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from the afternoon:

Opening Remarks

Sue Slaugenhaupt, PhD, Scientific Director of the Research Institute, gave an introduction on the importance of communicating science.

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Sue Slaugenhaupt, PhD

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Meet the Judges

Dr. Slaugenhaupt also introduced our panel of judges who each spoke for a few minutes about what science communicating means to them.

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Our amazing judges, were (from left): Ike Swetlitz, Reporter for STAT News, Rich Hayes, Creative Director/Deputy Director of Communications for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Carey Goldberg, Editor for the WBUR CommonHealth Blog, and Christine Reich, PhD, Vice President of Exhibit Development and Conservation at the Museum of Science, Boston.

Keynote Presentation

Then judge Christine Reich gave a keynote presentation discussing how the Museum of Science empowers their guests through science communication.

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Christine Reich, PhD

After Dr. Reich’s fascinating presentation, the competition began!

The Competition

Justin Baker, MD, PhD, went first with his presentation, Exploring the Human-Human Interface. Dr. Baker is Scientific Director at the Institute for Technology in Psychiatry and an Assistant Psychiatrist at McLean Hospital.

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Justin Baker, MD, PhD

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Kamal Jethwani, MD, MPH, Senior Director of Connected Health Innovation, Partners Connected Health, then gave a slideless presentation entitled, Want to Lose 5 Lbs Fast? Artificial Intelligence Holds the Key.

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Kamal Jethwani, MD, MPH

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Our third presenter was Jacob Dal-Bianco, MD, who spoke about preventing rheumatic heart disease. Dr. Dal-Bianco is a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Jacob Dal-Bianco, MD

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David Gow, PhD, of the Cognitive/Behavioral Neurology Group at Massachusetts General Hospital, then gave his presentation, Using Machine Learning to Help the Brain Understand Itself.

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David Gow, PhD

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Up next was Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM, who discussed a lending library for fitness trackers. Dr. Gualtieri is the founder of Recycle Health, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, and the Director of the Digital Health Communication Certificate Program.

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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

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Closing out the program was Roland Carlstead, PhD, of the Developmental Biology Research Program at McLean Hospital. Dr. Carlstead discussed whether treatment works and if the placebo effect is real.

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Roland Carlstedt, PhD

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After much deliberation, the judges named Justin Baker as the winner.

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Thank you to all our contestants and the judges for their insightful feedback and support of science communication!

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Celebrating the Important Role of Nurse Researchers at Mass General

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From left: Gaurdia Banister, director of the Munn Center for Nursing Research, Sara Looby, a nurse scientist at the Munn Center and the keynote speaker at Nursing Research Day, and Jeanette Ives Erickson, Chief Nurse and Senior Vice President for Nursing and Patient Care Services

Attendees of the 2017 Nursing Research Day celebration at Massachusetts General Hospital on May 9 certainly had a lot to be inspired by.

The event began with a poster session featuring 45 posters submitted by nurse researchers at Mass General, and concluded with a series of engaging presentations highlighting the important role that nursing research plays in improving patient care.

“As providers, we have patient experiences that influence our careers and are truly impactful,” said keynote speaker Sara Looby, PhD, ANP-BC, FAAN.

Looby, a Nurse Scientist at the Yvonne L. Munn Center for Nursing Research at Mass General, described several such formative experiences in her own nursing career, including an interaction with a young mother who was suffering from a terminal illness. Witnessing that mother’s experience firsthand gave Looby a better understanding of the human response to illness—and the despair, grief and suffering that comes with it.

Looby said her career as a nurse researcher has been guided by the desire to find ways to help patients cope with these feelings, by providing information, support and connections to clinical trials. Many of her research projects started by understanding the needs and concerns of her patients, she explained.

“Our patients are talking. We are asking them on a daily basis how they are feeling, and they are sharing their concerns, thoughts and opinions. In doing so, they are identifying gaps in knowledge that can be solved by asking research questions.”

Looby acknowledged that nurses already have a full plate of responsibilities taking care of patients, but she encouraged them to go the extra mile to pursue research questions as well. “What more can be done? What questions are not answered?”

“Each of you makes a difference every day, small or large, independently or as a team to help patients. So don’t be afraid to share your ideas with others, and don’t be intimidated by the research process.”

Gaurdia E. Banister, RN, PhD, NEA-BC, FAAN, Director of the Munn Institute and Executive Director of the Institute for Patient Care at Mass General, spoke about the center’s 25-year effort to establish a structure for nursing research at the hospital and credited Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, DNP, NEA-BC, FAAN, the hospital’s Chief Nurse and Senior Vice President for Patient Care, for her unwavering support.

Banister noted that the nursing research posters on display during the event represented a broad cross section of interests, including non-pharmacological approaches to pain management, population-based care and strategies to manage care transitions from the hospital to the community.

She also encouraged nurses to continue their advocacy for science and medicine at a challenging time for both disciplines.

“Staying silent is no longer a luxury we can afford. We all must stand together and support science. At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers, and we must aggressively advocate for the right to do so.”

Distilling Your Message: A Workshop with Alan Alda

Earlier this month, the Mass General Research Institute organized a day-long workshop hosted by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Participating Mass General researchers learned how to succinctly and vividly speak about their work in terms lay persons can understand. Improvisation exercises also helped participants hone their ability to naturally connect with different audiences.

This workshop is one of several programs and initiatives we have launched since 2016 to help our researchers better communicate their science to the general public. In the fall of 2016, we presented “The Art of Talking Science,” a fun American Idol-style science event where eight researchers had the chance to deliver a four-minute summary of their research and receive feedback from a panel of “celebrity” judges, including nationally known science writer Carl Zimmer. This event was part of the programming for HUBweek, a citywide festival celebrating innovation.

You can learn more about our other science communication programs here.

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Research Staff Appreciation Day Celebrates Contributions to MGH Research

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Every year, Massachusetts General Hospital celebrates Research Staff Appreciation Day to recognize and thank the research staff members who provide direct scientific support to faculty investigators across the Mass General research enterprise. Research staff members—a community of more than 3,700 people—include technicians, technologists and study coordinators.

Despite the dreary weather, hundreds of attendees came out on April 25th and 27th on the main campus and in Charlestown Navy Yard for the annual lunch and ice cream celebration. Prizes of mugs and movie tickets were raffled off courtesy of the Mass General Research Institute.

Harry Orf, PhD, Senior Vice President for Research, recognized the attendees for their many contributions. “Research staff comprise fully one third of our entire research community and, through their diligence and dedication, are the mainstay of our research enterprise,” said Orf.

Sue Slaugenhaupt, PhD, Scientific Director of the Mass General Research Institute, emphasized the crucial role research staff play. “The Mass General Research enterprise is so successful because of the thousands of people who support our work every day. We’re happy to honor them on Research Staff Appreciation Day.”

Maurizio Fava, MD, Director of the Division of Clinical Research, said the annual event is a way for the hospital to express its appreciation for this valuable part of the hospital’s scientific community. “Mass General is an institution that really values research, and values everyone who is involved in research.”

Mass General is home to the largest hospital-based research enterprise in the United States. Learn more about our research efforts.

March for Science Recap

MGH March for Science w/ Dr. Slavin

On Saturday, April 22, hundreds of members of the Mass General community—along with their families, colleagues and friends—gathered on the Bulfinch Lawn to join the “Stand Up for Science” rally.

Following remarks by Regina Larocque, MD, of the Physicians for Policy Action, Peter L. Slavin, MD, Mass General president, and Congressman Stephen F. Lynch (D-Boston), participants walked together to the Boston Common to join the Boston March for Science, which attracted thousands of supporters.

The goal of the Boston march was to unite a diverse and nonpartisan group to celebrate the city as an exceptional place for scientists and scientific research. Mass General joined this important effort as a visible sign of solidarity and support for the crucial role that science plays in improving the lives and health for our patients.

“Science is healing our patients, relieving pain, restoring lives, and offering health and hope. The MGH is science,” said Dr. Slavin.

He went on to say “the proposed drastic budget cuts to the NIH would have a devastating effect on our institution and our patients – present and future. We believe that the federal budget should reflect the powerful and vital role that science plays in supporting our democracy. This march is a way to reaffirm that belief.”

See more photos from the event

See slideshow with additional photos

Research Rumble Recap and the Art of Effective Science Communication

Last night five researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital showed off their science communication skills in a Research Rumble at the Cambridge Public Library as part of Cambridge Science Festival.

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Co-Director of Brigham’s Research Institute, Marc Sabatine, served as emcee

We heard about topics ranging from traumatic brain injury suffered by women in abusive relationships, to genetic sequencing in newborn babies, to Alzheimer’s disease.

The judges, Julie Burros, Chief of Arts and Culture for the City of Boston; Carey Goldberg, editor of WBUR’s CommonHealth blog; Christine Reich, PhD, Vice President of Exhibit Development and Conservation at the Boston Museum of Science; and Mark VanDerzee, co-founder of Company One, provided insightful feedback to our contestants. They offered suggestions for simplifying the science (i.e. avoid scientific jargon and abbreviations) and how to make the presentations feel more like narrative stories by adding in personal anecdotes and discussing the bigger picture.

The judges chose Mass General’s own Jonathan Hoggatt, PhD, as the winner, but the broader goal of the event was to share ideas about effective science communication.

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Jonathan Hoggatt, PhD, talks about his lab’s new method for donating bone marrow

The ability to communicate complicated scientific information clearly and effectively is challenging, but it’s an important skill that helps researchers reach a wider audience. Given the competitive research funding landscape, effective science communicators are also able to better articulate the significance and potential real-world impact of their work to potential funders.

So much has been written and said on the topic of science communication. To name a few:

  • Check out this great TED Talk from Melissa Marshall where she shares tips for presenting complex scientific ideas to a general audience.
  • This article from Forbes re-emphasizes the importance of using simple language to help everyday folks understand the importance of your science.
  • Lastly, the Mass General Research Institute has launched several initiatives to help researchers hone their science communication skills.
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Thanks to all our Research Rumble participants!

Mass General Stands Up for Science

to5dz.png This Saturday, April 22, thousands of supporters are expected to come together on the Boston Common from 2-4pm for the March for Science, an event also taking place in Washington, DC, and in more than 400 cities around the world. The Boston March for Science will celebrate the discovery, understanding and sharing of scientific knowledge. Several groups from Massachusetts General Hospital are working together to organize and ensure a strong presence to reaffirm the message about the essential role that science – biomedical research, in particular – plays in improving life and health.

We hope to see you there for what is sure to be a memorable and inspiring day!

 

 

4 Weeks Until Research Rumble!

Two researchers holding up signs that say "4 weeks hashtag camb sci fest" and "who will be the science communication champ?"

On April 20th researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital will compete in the Research Rumble to see which institute has the best team of science talkers.  A total of six contestants—three each from Mass General and the Brigham—will have four minutes each to present their science to a team of “celebrity” judges and receive feedback. The team that does the best overall job of presenting their science will take home the title of rumble champions—at least until the next time we square off!

The Research Rumble is part of the Cambridge Science Festival, and will take place on Thursday, April 20th, from 5:00 pm to 6:30 pm at the Cambridge Public Library, 499 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02138. We hope you’ll join us!