A passing grade? How risk communication strategies aligned with citizen's efforts to access health information during COVID-19: A rapid review

Article type
Thai A1, Hopkins S1, Stoby K1, Hagerman L1, Sala N1, Neumann S1, Ford C1, Dobbins M1
1National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools
Background: Risk communication strategies have been employed during public health crises. However, there is a need to determine which strategies were effective during the COVID-19 pandemic and how these aligned with individuals’ experiences accessing and interacting with information.

Objectives: Two independent rapid reviews were conducted to: (i) identify best practices for risk communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, and (ii) synthesize the literature on public experiences accessing and interacting with COVID-19 information.

Methods: This review used a comprehensive search strategy, critical appraisal, data extraction, and Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE)/GRADE assessment. MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, Cochrane Library, Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), Trip Medical Database, Web of Science, and Global Health Database were searched up to November 2022. Both reviews were conducted concurrently, findings were characterized and synthesized descriptively, and key points that were supported across both reviews were collated for stronger recommendations. Independent, paired reviewers completed all steps.

Results: Overall, 103 publications were included across the two reviews. Findings highlighted the importance of trusted spokespersons, addressing misinformation, developing government-community partnerships, and delivering clear and positively framed messages. The public used both established and informal channels (e.g., social media) to stay informed about COVID-19, and wanted personalized, community-specific health information. Ethnic minority groups and (im)migrant populations experienced a greater degree of literacy and language barriers. Multipronged interventions to support future public health crises response were recommended. Risk communication can consider the following: (a) adopt a uniform approach to communication between levels of government for consistent and complementary messaging; (b) acknowledge uncertainty to tackle misinformation; (c) deliver clear, honest, and non-sensationalized information; (d) balance positive and fear-based messages to consider the emotional needs of the public; and (e) tailor messages for audiences. Evidence on risk communication and public experiences were lacking in Indigenous communities and other equity-deserving communities.

Conclusions: There is a growing body of evidence exploring risk communication and public experiences accessing information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Future risk communication strategies should seek to integrate both to apply best practices while also addressing gaps and serving the public’s information needs.

Patient, public, and/or healthcare consumer involvement: Citizen feedback on both rapid reviews was incorporated. All disseminated materials reflect citizens’ suggestions.