Executive Health Administration

Change Health Behavior by Telling the Right Story

[fa icon="calendar'] May 29, 2015 1:44:00 PM / by Robert Perkins

The Tamale LessonLatin American women are less likely to understand the causes of cervical cancer or to be screened for it. That needs to change, say USC researchers who are finding ways to make that happen.

“It’s not just the narrative — it’s the cultural themes and the ethnicities of the people on screen. Telling a story stripped of those elements is, by default in the United States, just telling a ‘mainstream’ story. If you want to reach Mexican-American women, you have to tell a compelling, culturally relevant story,” said Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati of the Keck School of Medicine, co-author of the study.

 The findings were published by the American Journal of Public Health on April 23.

“Latinas are the ones most at risk and yet health communication campaigns still essentially target white women,” said Sheila Murphy, professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Murphy teamed up with colleagues from the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC School of Cinematic Arts to find a better way to communicate public health messages.

Just the facts

Women from each ethnicity in the study were shown one of two videos about the cause of cervical cancer and how to detect it via Pap tests. One of the videos — The Tamale Lesson — featured a narrative story about a Mexican-American family’s preparation for a daughter’s quinceañera. The other — It’s Time — presented the same facts but with doctors and patients explaining them.

“Both the narrative and non-narrative films were produced by the same team and were high-quality videos that did a good job of explaining the reasons to have a Pap test. The only difference is the way the information is presented,” Murphy said.

Follow the guidelines

The videos were created by Doe Mayer and Jeremy Kagan at the cinematic arts school’s Change Making Media Lab.

Before watching the videos, only about 32 percent of the Mexican-American women surveyed were in compliance with recommended cervical cancer screening guidelines. Comparatively, roughly half of African-American and white women had a Pap test in the past two years.

Six months later, 83 percent of Mexican-American women who watched The Tamale Lesson were in compliance, compared to 73 percent of Mexican-American women who watched It’s Time.

You can’t just present facts and hope people will change their behavior. Sheila Murphy

The narrative story produced a similar, though less-pronounced, effect on African-American women — holding about a 6 percentage-point edge over the non-narrative story. Among white women, the narrative and non-narrative films were equally effective in prompting women to be screened.

The researchers said they hope the study and future research along these lines will help inform the way public officials craft messages.

“Public health officials need to realize what advertisers have known for decades. You can’t just present facts and hope people will change their behavior. If you want your audience to engage, you have to tell them a story that they care about,” Murphy said.

The research was supported by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (grants R01CA144052 and P30CA014089).

Topics: Innovative Leadership, Health Misconceptions

Robert Perkins

Written by Robert Perkins

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