Communicating risk of medication side-effects: role of communication format on risk perception


Background: Medication side-effects often arouse fear in the minds of consumers and therefore need to be communicated in a manner such that the intended message is clearly understood, without causing undue fear.

Objectives: Considering the message format and contextual factors that influence perceptions of risk, this study aimed at assessing the interaction effects of message format and contextual factors (rate of occurrence and severity) on risk perception of medication side-effects.

Methods: Using Rhormann’s risk communication process model, a 2 (message format: words-only vs. words + numeric) X 2 (rate of occurrence: high vs low) X 2 (severity: mild vs severe) experimental factorial study was designed. Participants were presented with four of eight possible combinations of the three factors and were asked to indicate the risk perception with the associated side-effects. Repeated measures analysis was conducted while adjusting for control variables.

Results: A total of 196 completed surveys were collected. Communication format did not have significant main effect on risk perception (P=0.4237) but demonstrated a significant interaction with rate of occurrence (P=0.0001). As compared to words-only format, least square means for words + numeric format were lower among low-rate side-effects but were higher among high-rate side-effects. Rate of occurrence (P<0.0001) and severity (P<0.0001) had significant main effects on risk perception as well as interaction effect with each other (P<0.0001).

Conclusions: The results indicated that effect of communication format on risk perception of side-effect is dependent on the underlying rate of occurrence of side-effect. Healthcare providers should therefore carefully construct risk communication messages for effective communication with patients.

Original Research