Parents want explanations, not scare tactics in reports of children's health research

Only half of parents think the media is doing a good job explaining how research affects their children; media invited to attend lecture on research reporting with Richard Besser

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Each year, billions of public and private dollars are spent on medical research about child health. When research studies are completed, results need to reach parents - the people most responsible for keeping children healthy.

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked 1,621 parents across the United States for their opinions about how well different media sources communicate results of child health research.

“For most parents, the media is their only resource to learn about new research results that could affect how they care for their children,” says Sarah Clark, M.P.H., associate director of the poll. “It’s important to understand whether media reports about child health research are meeting parents’ information needs. Based on our survey, half of US parents say, no—the media is not doing a good job in this area.”

The survey showed only half of parents think media reports do a good job explaining how research affects their children. The majority of parents also indicated that media reports about children’s health are contradictory, unnecessarily scary and often hard to understand.

Confusing messages

Parents also had several criticisms of the way child health research is conveyed in the media:

  • 82 percent think research results are contradictory – first they say one thing, then another.
  • 60 percent believe media reports scare parents unnecessarily.
  • 50 percent say health research reports are hard to understand.

The poll also showed that 77 percent of parents like having a medical expert explain what the research means for their children.
In comparing different types of media reports, 61 percent of parents believe that health websites do the best job providing information that is accurate, but 53 percent of parents say TV is best for making new information available fast.

Overall, 51 percent say that health websites are the best source, while 29 percent think TV is the best overall source.

“Each day, parents are bombarded with media reports about the latest research findings – from new medicines to environmental hazards, and from rare diseases to the common cold,” says Clark, who is associate director of the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan. “We found that no single media source was rated as best in all areas—timeliness, accuracy, how easily the information is understood and whether a medical expert offers insight and explanation. As a result, many parents struggle to understand information they find confusing, contradictory and sometimes scary.

“A key finding of this poll is that parents look to medical experts to cut through the confusion and translate what research findings mean for their children. Whether parents seek health websites or come across a TV or newspaper report on child health research, effective media reports guide parents in understanding what research results mean in the real world.”

Media advisory

Media are invited to attend a press session from 3:45 – 4:15 p.m. Thursday, March 17, preceding "View from Both Sides of the Camera: Using Media to Promote Child Health," with Richard Besser, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical reporter for ABC News and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the Basic Science and Research Building, at the corner of Zina Pitcher and Ann Streets, Kahn Auditorium.

As a former director of the CDC, and now as the Chief Medical Correspondent for ABC News, Besser has a unique perspective on the role and impact of the media in public health, and its impact on children. To reserve your seat, call 734-764-2220.

Resource for parents: How to assess medical studies found in journals and medical news

Purpose/Funding: The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health – based at the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan and funded by the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases and the University of Michigan Health System – is designed to measure major health care issues and trends for U.S. children.

Data Source: This report presents findings from a nationally representative household survey conducted exclusively by Knowledge Networks, Inc, for C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital via a method used in many published studies. The survey was administered in August 13 to September 7, 2011 to a randomly selected, stratified group of parents aged 18 or older (n=1,621) from the Knowledge Networks standing panel that closely resembles the U.S. population. The sample was subsequently weighted to reflect population figures from the Census Bureau. The survey completion rate was 60 percent among parent panel members contacted to participate. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 to 3 percentage points.

This Report includes research findings from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, which do not represent the opinions of the investigators or the opinions of the University of Michigan. 



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