36464 If You Can Explain Radiation, You Can Explain Anything! Lessons Learned from Communicating a Challenging Topic. [Environmental Health]

John Donovan, MPH, Radiation Studies Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA

Background: Invisible, silent, odorless, and only detected with specialized equipment – radiation is a difficult topic about which to communicate and educating people about radiation is exceptionally challenging.  It is unfamiliar and may be feared by the general public, as well as many professionals involved in a radiation emergency response.  Providing effective communication around radiation can help alleviate fears and decrease illness, injury, and death.   How can one accurately convey complex science and confusing concepts, while also making that information accessible and actionable? In CDC’s Radiation Studies Branch, we have a saying – “If you can explain radiation, you can explain anything!”  Learn more about how you can translate lessons learned from audience research, experiences in the field, and other experiences around radiation to communicating and educating on other complex public health topics. 

Program background:  CDC’s Radiation Studies Branch has conducted extensive research on information needs for the public, professionals, and special populations in a radiation emergency. This research has included radiation emergency message testing, media message testing, usability testing of educational products, and health effects message testing with the general public.   This presentation will:

  1. Identify challenges in educating others about the concept of radiation and communicating during a radiation emergency
  2. Provide an overview of key findings from audience research and usability testing
  3. Highlight tools and resources that have integrated lessons learned to help public health professionals better communicate in radiation emergencies and about radiation overall

Evaluation Methods and Results:  Two rounds of CDC Radiation Emergencies website usability testing with members of the public and professionals occurred in 2012, involving remote and in-lab interviews.  This small usability study illustrated the need to use more streamlined content and varied media (e.g. photos, illustrations, innovation) in tandem with content to make it more understandable.  These audience research findings and others have shown there are numerous communication needs and many misconceptions around radiation and radiation emergencies. One major finding is that users want short, concise and simple messages in the active voice with specific instructions on what to do to protect themselves in the event of a radiation emergency. [i],[ii],[iii] Related to this, there is extensive misunderstanding around concepts like what radiation is, radiation dose, and radioactive contamination versus exposure.


Radiation is a complex topic.  Communicating and educating others on a complex topic requires a multifaceted solution.   Creating effective health education and communication products for a complex topic like radiation requires the expertise of professionals involved in a radiation emergency response, along with the feedback of constituencies and innovation in creative effective, engaging products that meet them where they are. 

Implications for research and/or practice:  Audience research and lessons learned in communicating and educating on a complex topic (radiation) provides insight on strategies to use when addressing misconceptions and communication gaps in other public health topics.

[i]   Formative Research IND Message Testing with the General Public. CDC, Radiation Studies Branch. March 2011. http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/pdf/IND%20Message%20Testing%20Final%20Report.pdf

[ii]   Detonation of an Improvised Nuclear Device. CDC, Radiation Studies Branch. March 2011. http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/pdf/Media%20Message%20Testing%20Video%20Script%20Final%20Report.pdf

[iii]  Health Effects Message Testing: Detonation of Improvised Nuclear Device. CDC, Radiation Studies Branch. January 2012. http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/pdf/Health%20Message%20Testing-Detonation%20of%20an%20Improvised%20Nuclear%20Device.pdf