Communicating risk and uncertainty to patients and the media


Session type:

David Spieglehalter1
1University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK


None of us know what is going to happen, but acknowledging uncertainty about the future can be tricky. Sometimes numbers can be put on the chances of various possible outcomes, both good and bad, but the language and metaphors used can make a difference in people's perceptions. And often the chances are themselves uncertain.

I shall look at how different agencies are communicating risk and uncertainty, both in medicine and outside. Recent psychology research suggests that using 'natural frequencies' - such as "what we would expect to happen in 100 people like you" - can help avoid some biases. I will consider the use of such language in the new leaflets from the NHS Screening Programme, which attempt to present both potential harms and benefits of screening in a uniform way and, in a bold innovation, do not explicitly recommend screening but suggest people 'consider the offer'.

The media love stories about how mundane exposures can lead to dread consequences - 'cats cause cancer' being a classic example. I will look at how such presentations serves to manipulate emotions, and suggest some alternative metaphors that could lead to a more balanced assessment of risk.