Women's health study's complex nature prompts need to put results into context for consumers
The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) is one of the largest government-sponsored studies ever to examine the most pressing concerns that women and their doctors have about their health.
Yet when the results of the study debunked many ingrained medical opinions, news about the data caused shock and concern among women.
The WHI is the same study that, four years ago, caused an uproar when it found that commonly prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT) actually did more harm than good for post-menopausal women.
The WHI is back in the news in recent months after researchers found that low-fat diets had little effect on warding off cancer and that calcium and vitamin D supplements couldn't prevent bone fractures.
As researchers have reopened the case for HRT, they are similarly trying to put the dietary findings into perspective.
The National Institutes of Health declined to comment on its outreach. But other groups confirm that they are engaged in parallel campaigns to communicate about the design and results of the WHI.
"For a number of years... we've tried to explain how the study was set up," says L. Jo Parrish, VP of institutional advancement at the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR). "A lot of people don't know what the study was about. We're trying to put what's out there in context."
More than a decade ago, the SWHR worked with the Clinton administration to pass legislation that would require women to be included in federally funded research.
Now the group is helping women understand how to apply the results of one of the largest and longest-running women's health studies to their daily lives. "There's ongoing concern and confusion because there is no black and white," Parrish says.
The SWHR has sent articles about the WHI results to 12,000 small and medium newspapers; it has also posted information on its Web site, which sees spikes in traffic with every new WHI development.
The International Food and Information Council (IFIC) is also working with nutrition and health professionals to explain how the latest findings build upon what the scientific community already knows.
"Consumers tell us they are confused," says Susan Borra, president of IFIC Foundation. "One day a study comes out and says X is good for you, and the next week another study contradicts the findings of the first. The result is a public that is not acting on these messages about good health because they believe the experts will change their minds in the future."
Megan Svensen, EVP of healthcare at Marina Maher Communications, which specializes in marketing to women, notes that women are likely to react less strongly to the dietary data than they did to the hormone data.
Svensen notes that HRT was once touted as a "wonder drug" that could prevent conditions ranging from heart failure to Alzheimer's. Yet researchers abruptly stopped the trials because of the increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
"A lot of people reacted very emotionally," Parrish recalls. "There was panic."
The news media also affected the likelihood of women continuing to take HRT. A separate study last year in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy found that of 97 women who had heard about the study through the media, 52% had changed their use of HRT.
These women were also less likely to trust the information from their own physicians.
"This is a sound-bite culture; [but] science does not make [for] good sound bites," Svensen says. "We have to make sure we're communicating the entire study and not just the top-line results."
Yet she cites the Internet and emerging media forms like podcasts as ways to explain the nuances of clinical trials, including study design.