To make effective decisions regarding health risks, patients and professionals must be well informed and understand the risks and benefits of their options. Research has shown that the general public lacks numeracy, which affects their health risk literacy and the ability to make an informed decision.
Rocio Garcia-Retamero of the University of Grenada and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Edward T. Cokely of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Michigan Technological University discuss communication and the understanding of health information through visual aids. Visual aids are considered to be “simple graphical representations of numerical expressions of probability and include icon arrays and bar and line graphs, among others” (Garcia-Retamero & Cokely, 2013).
Garcia-Retamero and Cokely examined a national sample of people from the United States and Germany to determine how visual aids helped people understand health literacy. Of the sample population, participants were rated on their numerical literacy and graphical literacy. The study found that adding visual aids to numerical data about the effectiveness of medical treatments increased the accuracy by nearly 60 percent. This was even true in those who had low numeracy; however, it did not benefit people who had low numerical and low graph literacy.
Visual aids are also proven to assist special groups who have trouble understanding numerical-based information and reasoning. The aids improved risk communication for older adults and people with limited language skills and narrow medical knowledge.
This article discusses how well-designed visual aids can produce more effective health risk information. They can “foster the intention to participate in screenings, which increases the likelihood of engaging in the detection behavior.” (Garcia-Retamero & Cokely, 2011). But the article notes that graphs and charts can often be misinterpreted and should be avoided.
To read the full text of this study:
Garcia-Retamero, R., & Cokely, E. T. (2013). Communicating Health Risks With Visual Aids. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(5), 392–399. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413491570