Why Cancer Screening Campaigns Can Backfire

FRIDAY, July 30 (HealthDay News) — Health campaigns that highlight the problem of low screening rates for prostate cancer to promote such screenings seem to have an unintended effect: They discourage men from undergoing a prostate exam, a new German study suggests.

The finding, reported in the current issue of Psychological Science, stems from work by a research team from the University of Heidelberg that gauged the intention to get screened for prostate cancer among men over the age of 45 who reside in two German cities.

In earlier research, the study authors had found that men who had never had such screenings tended to believe that most men hadn’t either.

In the current effort, the team exposed men who had never been screened to one of two health information statements: either that only 18 percent of German men had been screened in the past year, or that 65 percent of men had been screened.

In fact, the researchers noted that both statements are factually accurate, as the first statement referenced only a one-year screening period while the latter statement reflected lifetime screening patterns.

After hearing one or the other statement, the men were asked to indicate whether they planned to undergo standard screening in the coming year.

The investigators found that those men given indications of higher screening patterns were much more likely to say they would get screened. Furthermore, men given information about lower screening patterns were less likely to give basic information (name/address) that would garner them more information about cancer screening.

The authors concluded that a simple shift in public health messaging could potentially have a big impact on the motivational power of any health promotion campaign, whether the subject be prostate cancer screening or another important health concern, such as good hygiene or vaccinations.

“For us it is so interesting because this is very easy to change,” co-author Monika Sieverding said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science. “There are so many barriers to cancer screening. You cannot change attitudes easily, or the image of the average cancer screening patient, but it is easy to change the framing of the campaign.”

More information

For more on prostate cancer screening, visit the U.S. National Cancer Institute.