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Health risks: a picture is worth a thousand words

50/2019, 04.12.2019

BfR workshop on the use of visualisations in risk communication

Whether it is contamination of food, electromagnetic radiation or breast cancer screening, people are confronted with many health issues in their everyday lives, some of which can also be complicated. The pictorial presentation (visualisation) of certain health risks can help to improve the grasping of information. However, further research on the effect of visual tools is required in order to be able to use these tools effectively in risk communication. This was the subject of discussion among experts at an international workshop, which was held on 25 and 26 November 2019 at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in Berlin. Another topic of discussion: the exchange of information on (perceived) risks can help to deepen the mutual understanding of experts and laypersons. Visualisations can play a key role here too. "Graphical elements provide a clear 'at a glance' illustration of the key factors of a risk assessment", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "They help to better assess health risks, whilst also enhancing people’s competence in dealing with them. As a result, the potential of these visualisations needs to be examined further."

Experts from various international organisations and universities gave presentations and discussed the subject of communication and visualisation of health risks.

The results of a new study by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the Free University Amsterdam showed that laypersons are aware of the difference between "hazard" and "risk" in certain topic areas. Laypersons understand that the duration and strength of exposure to a hazard is a relevant factor for risk characterisation purposes. However, this awareness is rarely used for the individual risk assessment.

Another study conducted by the Free University Amsterdam showed how important it is to understand the information needs and key themes of the different players involved in order to foster dialogue. As a result, when looking at intensive lifestock farming, the health of humans and animals is not at the forefront of discussion for everyone. So-called “hidden concerns”, such as the strong unpleasant smell involved, are often more relevant factors that will contribute to heightened concerns. Without being aware of them, engaging various players in risk decisions is very difficult.

The graphical visualisation of data or risk scenarios is useful to help better understand texts, probabilities or proportions. This is indicated in the results of topic-related studies conducted at the University of Leeds. However, the development of visualisation formats should always be accompanied by efforts to verify the understanding by and fitness for purpose for the recipients. Any misinterpretations could result in new risk behaviour.

How well do laypersons understand scientific uncertainty? The results from a study conducted by the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication in Cambridge, which involved more than 5000 participants, indicated that the admission of uncertainties in the risk assessment does not diminish confidence in the communicating institution.

Infographics and data presented in a clear manner also play a key role in "BfR2GO", the new academic magazine published by the BfR. (https://www.bfr.bund.de/en/science_magazine_bfr2go.html)

The "BfR2GO" magazine has emerged from the BfR's Annual Report. It has been fundamentally updated with the aim of better informing the general public about health risks. Each edition of the BfR2GO magazine focuses on a current key issue and provides information on the latest developments in research and scientific assessment for consumer health protection purposes.

There is also research collaboration in place between the BfR and the Harding Center for Risk Literacy in Berlin, with the aim of visualising the results from health risk assessments in a way that can be understood by the general public. The BfR risk profile is expected to be developed further by both institutes. The initial results were presented at the BfR workshop.

In addition to the BfR, the following institutions took part in the interactive workshop:

  • Amsterdam University Medical Center, Free University Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam
  • Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)
  • University of Groningen
  • Harding Center for Risk Literacy
  • Robert Koch Institute
  • German Federal Office For Radiation Protection
  • German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
  • University of Leeds

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the German federal government and federal states on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.

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