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Beyond Evidence Reporting: Evidence Translation in an Era of Uncertainty

This post originally appeared on The Medical Care Blog on May 11, 2020

For decades, peer-reviewed journals have been a critical pathway for disseminating and advancing scientific knowledge. However, curbing the spread of misinformation requires evidence translation by experts into plain English.

The rapidly evolving knowledge base on COVID-19 shines a spotlight on the issue. For example, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine offered nuanced evidence on the virus' ability to survive on various materials. But many people in our society lack the health literacy to accurately interpret scientific information. Sensational headlines after the study's publication didn't explain how to apply the findings to our daily lives.

We also know that certain groups of people are at higher risk for COVID-19. A recent piece in the Washington Post, for example, pointed out that COVID-19 infection rates are three times higher and death rates six times higher in counties with a majority of black as compared with white community members. People of color, older adults, and people with disabilities also tend to have lower levels of health literacy. This underscores the need to translate scientific findings to reach people at higher risk.

Consequently, we face an ethical imperative. We must engage and reach the public with scientific evidence to ensure justice and increase public trust. And, we need to make sure that the information shared with the public is accurate, accessible, and understandable.

Changing nature of journalism

Years of budget cuts have decimated newsrooms. Health journalism beats that once focused on medical and public health stories have been merged with more general reporting. In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook, for example, pledged to invest an additional $100 million, beyond the $300 million already donated, to support local newsrooms that specifically reach underserved communities and transform their business models to a more sustainable digital footprint.

This is important because the public finds information and news in their social media feeds as regularly as they do anywhere else. Our increased access to information via social media is a double-edged sword. As human beings, we are susceptible to the proliferation of misinformation. And now people can share misinformation with countless others at an unprecedented speed. For example, a recent analysis of COVID-19 posts on social media [PDF] highlighted inaccurate information, confusion, and efforts to respond to the misinformation.

Some have called for large-scale fact-checking efforts or greater promotion of original peer-reviewed research articles as solutions. Neither one of these alone is the answer. But investing in accurate translation of scientific findings for everyday Americans could encourage more grounded, general coverage in the news.

Supporting evidence translation

People are increasingly eager for answers based on science. Rather than watering down original scientific research, we would do better to build bridges. The result would be communicating the findings from rigorous science to the public in a meaningful way.

Models for this type of evidence translation exist. The Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, for example, invests in developing and disseminating lay versions of abstracts of scientific studies. This makes the findings more accessible to the general public and increases transparency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Clear Communication Index also provides evidenced-based recommendations for developing communication that enhances people’s understanding of complex information. Research on the public’s ability to understand risks and benefits, such as the work of the Food and Drug Administration, also offers a clear model for future initiatives to inform regulatory policy. Applying these models to other scientific information could help ensure that social media links lead to information that people without advanced degrees can understand.

We can increase access to reliable and evidence-based information to address the health disparities gap compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. To do this, we need people working on the front lines, people working to advance science and medicine, and people to translate scientific evidence to help everyone understand where we are, where we’re headed, and how we can or should act on the information in our daily lives.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Jennifer Uhrig (Senior Director, Communication Practice Area), Megan A. Lewis (Senior Fellow, Patient & Family Engagement Research), Jon Poehlman (Center Director, Center for Communication Strategy and Design), and Brian G. Southwell (Lead Scientist for Public Understanding of Science) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.