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Covid-19 related Risk Communication in Germany - Opinion by Federal Council of Experts.

Opinion issued by the German Federal Council of Experts on COVID-19 (Stellungnahme des ExpertInnenrates der Bundesregierung zu COVID-19) of 30 January

The German Federal Council of Experts on Covid-19 issued their official opinion about the need for evidence-based risk and health communication. 

This official document really makes the case for good Risk Communication systems and actions during an emergency. 

We took the liberty to translate it here in full. (Original text in German here - opens a PDF)

5th Statement of the Expert Council of the Federal Government on COVID-19 On the need for evidence-based risk and health communication.

Date of publication: 30.01.2022 

Current situation.

Most citizens want to actively contribute to ending the pandemic and act according to applicable and reasonable rules. 

A lack of consistency of available information, its assessments and the resulting recommendations contributes to public uncertainty, provides a target for mis- and disinformation, undermines trust in government action and jeopardizes the success of important health protection measures. 

To support individuals and society in their self-efficacy and risk-competent behaviour, responsive, evidence-based, target group and user-specific risk and health communication is essential. 

This must explain scientific evidence simply, translate it into recommendations for action and become the reference standard and first choice for helpful and reliable information. 

Even though authorities and ministries are currently implementing parts of this, there is no institution in Germany that implements risk and health communication coordinated according to the principles listed below. 

Building blocks of effective risk and health communication In a decentralised and pluralistic society like in Germany, diverse actors will always inform and communicate. 

Within the framework of this diversity, there must be professionally sound and evidence-based health communication that is developed and implemented by multidisciplinary expertise and ideally enjoys a high level of trust among the population. This requires at least four building blocks that are closely intertwined. 

The first building block is the generation of the best available knowledge. 

This includes structures that: 

a) enable the pooling of medical and epidemiological information, i.e. the evaluation and interpretation of relevant studies, modelling, health-related statistics and key figures; 

b) carry out regular monitoring of behaviour-relevant aspects such as acceptance of measures, willingness to vaccinate, trust of the population, etc., and 

c) allow the monitoring of classical and social media to identify trends and misinformation. 

These structures should be created in order to be able to communicate in a user-centered way based on this knowledge. The Corona pandemic has highlighted the lack of availability of important data compared to other countries and shows how this systemically tolerated lack of data hinders scientific analysis and response to the pandemic. 

Overall, the lack of digitalisation in the health system in Germany (see also the 4th statement) is a major obstacle-not least for successful communication. 

The second building block is the translation of relevant data, statistics and key figures into user-centered and target-group-specific, understandable information formats that are relevant to decision-making and action. 

The goals should be education and not advertising or persuasion ("persuading"). 

The contents should be adapted to different educational prerequisites, cultural, linguistic and age-related differences and be personally relevant in the sense of information justice. 

The translation of the data should build on the existing extensive evidence on effective communication of scientific content, risks and uncertainties. 

Target group and content planning should incorporate knowledge from monitoring behavioural aspects and (social) media as well as participatory approaches (e.g.: Who rejects vaccinations and for what reasons? Who needs to be reached in particular with what content? Who obtains information from which sources and how?) 

As far as possible, concrete decision-making aids should be offered, such as checklists, simple decision trees, decision heuristics, each of which can also be made automatically available on existing apps, e.g. the Corona warning app. 

Every communication campaign today is in competition with misinformation and disinformation. The task of an effective communication and information strategy is therefore also to identify, evaluate and refute these in a professional and comprehensible manner. 

This information must be widely known and extremely easy to access. International networking and cooperation with other national and international health organizations is essential here. 

For like the virus, infodemics, i.e. the rapid and widespread spread of both correct and incorrect information, is a global phenomenon. Here, too, there are science-based approaches and guidelines that should be implemented. 

The third building block is the dissemination of communicative content through the multiple channels of a modern information society, from traditional to social media to e- and m-health offerings. 

The model for the dissemination process should be modern campaigns with a wide reach and media diversity. 

In this context, it is again of central importance to choose dissemination channels that are specific to the target group. It must be taken into account that some target groups such as children and young people, people with a migration background or those who are educationally disadvantaged can be reached differently via the classic or modern media repertoires. 

Therefore, multipliers who are active in interpersonal communication, e.g. in vaccination counselling centers or in real-life contexts (e.g. doctors, social workers, teachers, nurses), are also particularly relevant. 

It is therefore important to provide them with adequate materials and a corresponding mandate to support them in passing on information and personal communication. 

The same applies to health offices, so that all actors are always on the same and up-to-date level of advice and information in order to avoid contradictory information to the population. 

Who is considered a trustworthy source also differs according to the target group (e.g. religious functionaries instead of authorities, social environment instead of scientists). This also needs to be taken into account. 

Last but not least, cooperation with representatives of (science) journalism is needed. 

The last building block is the evaluation of the effects achieved and, if necessary, the adaptation of the strategy. 

Evaluation should start in the translation phase to check the impact of the content and formats and to anticipate unintended effects. Involving citizens e.g. in focus groups or experimental studies can increase the effectiveness of communication as well as the trust in the communicators. 

Creating sustainable communication structures 

One of the most important lessons from the Corona pandemic is that fact-based and action-oriented information of the population in health crises is indispensable. 

The Expert Council therefore recommends improving current communication and information services according to the principles described above. 

The Council of Experts further proposes to quickly expand the infrastructure for risk and health communication. For this purpose, the existing competences should be bundled, and missing ones should be supplemented. 

This multidisciplinary infrastructure should be professionally independent. It should generate the best available knowledge and translate it for the population and the professional public, disseminate it to all relevant target groups and evaluate the effect. 

The Corona pandemic is only one of several collective and global health crises to which society must respond. 

Therefore, it requires the establishment of a sustainable infrastructure to inform the population in an evidence-based, fast and effective manner and to support them in their risk and action competence.

Categories: : Risk Communication