A finger scrolls on a news website displayed on a smartphone.
Researchers at VCU's Media+Health Lab focus on how public information is crafted and the way in which messages are understood. (Getty Images)

‘Everyone at the table’: VCU media lab works to improve health communications

With science changing rapidly, the need for clear, accurate messages regarding public health is crucial, said Jeanine Guidry, who runs the Media+Health Lab.

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Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public relations in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, believes health communications should be multidisciplinary. She helped create the Media+Health Lab to advance that vision. The lab’s goal is to study health communications and present research on best practices.

Guidry, who started her Ph.D. in the Media, Art and Text interdisciplinary doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University and finished in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the School of Medicine, believes that for too long research on health communication has focused on how well a public health message is received. She and others in the Media+Health Lab — which Guidry runs alongside Nicole O’Donnell, also an assistant professor at the Robertson School — want to focus more on how messages are crafted and the way in which they are understood.

A recent example is an eye-tracking study, in which the lab tested participants as they read messages on a screen and used software to trace where readers’ eyes focused. The idea was to discern what the readers concentrated on the most and craft better communications based on the research. 

Health communication should not operate in a vacuum, Guidry said. Researchers need to find ways to work together. The Media+Health Lab has brought together representatives from the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, Department of Psychology, the Robertson School and others throughout the university. But Guidry said the collaboration must not be limited to VCU. She welcomes anyone interested in health communications to join the conversation and already has collaborators in Europe and 10 at universities in the United States.

“It’s been clear to us that health care deals with complex issues, and we need to have everyone at the table,” Guidry said. “COVID-19 is the perfect example. It’s not just developing a vaccine but also figuring out how to get all the people a vaccine.” 

The eye-tracking study and other lab activities have been on hold since campus activity was shuttered in March because of the pandemic. That meant the lab had to pivot and focus on other research. A survey was conducted on preventative behaviors and the impact on the coronavirus. The survey looked at communications regarding things such as social distancing, hand washing and masks and tried to determine what impact the communications had on people adhering to preventative actions.

Professor Jeanine Guidry.
Jeanine Guidry, an assistant professor of public relations in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, believes health communications should be multidisciplinary. “It’s been clear to us that health care deals with complex issues, and we need to have everyone at the table,” Guidry said. (File photo)

But the real challenge right now with health communications is the huge amount of messaging and the volume of misinformation, Guidry said. The virus is so unprecedented that health messaging is difficult. And the science, information and data change daily, which means health care professionals are having a hard time keeping a consistent message.

“It doesn’t mean science screwed up,” Guidry said. “It just means that science has evolved, and that is hard to communicate.”

In the end, it comes down to choices that individuals are making, whether it’s social distancing or wearing a mask. People will decide the best way to protect their family, and that is not always easy to convey from a health communication perspective, Guidry said. 

Another area the lab would like to research is communications about contact tracing, which is done when people have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. The lab wants to understand how to present that type of communication. It is an interdisciplinary problem.

“That is at the heart of what we are trying to find out,” Guidry said. “I know a lot about public health and communications, but I need help in other areas. I need other professionals.” 

She hopes the lab will be able to reopen soon and is looking for graduate students, faculty and undergrads who want to advance health communication. She already works with graduate students from several disciplines and wants to add a larger group.

“We try to approach health care and health-related disciplines from a broad perspective,” Guidry said. “If people need training, we are more than willing to help them if they are willing to put in the time.”

Guidry is hoping to complete a five-year plan for the lab, and hopes to restart the eye-tracking study in the fall, but a lot still remains uncertain. She will need to recruit students and that will depend on students returning to campus. Right now, she cannot access the lab.

“We are excited for campus to reopen,” Guidry said. “We can do our research by the guidelines set forth by the university. Fortunately, we [also] can do a lot of the research without being in the lab.”