ENGAGING THE PUBLIC, PROTECTING THE HEALTH

David Abramson, Columbia University


Decision making is the ultimate ambition of risk and health communications, according to David Abramson, and can be described in terms of information push and pull. From the policy maker’s or public health practitioner’s perspective, risk communication is designed to “push” information that encourages behavioral change or action that reduces known risks. From the public’s perspective, risk communication activities allow communities and individuals to “pull” information that influences short- and long-term decision making. Abramson explained that town hall meetings provide opportunities for the public to request information that guides specific actions. For example, one individual at a recent town meeting asked whether to conduct baseline soil testing on personal property to document potential damage if an insurance claim should be filed.

Abramson stated that his presentation’s three goals were to consider: (1) what influences perceptions, dissemination, and comprehension of health and risk communication by a variety of populations; (2) what vulnerability means to risk communication and how it influences what threats are perceived as most prominent; and (3) options for communication strategies that account for variations in culture, literacy, and other factors that define high-risk populations.

Influencing Health and Risk Communication

Health communication is not risk communication. Health information, which includes economic information, is geared toward social marketing and long-term behavior change, whereas risk communication draws on “emergency broadcasting” methods to elicit an immediate response, stated Abramson. Thus, variations in risk and health communication effectiveness may depend on different factors. For example, lack of attention or awareness may weaken the impact of health communication messages. On the other hand, risk communication messages are more vulnerable to fatigue, which can result from conflicting messages or dismissal if people do not perceive themselves as being part of the at-risk group.

Abramson cited a long line of science and scholarship on risk communication that can be used to inform communication strategies. For



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