The Toowong cancer cluster and risk communication

The latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia (eMJA) has published an investigation into the possible cancer cluster at the Toowong television studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in late 2006.

Not surprisingly, given previous reports, the investigation has found that

“No statistically significant excess risk of breast cancer in ABC female employees was found across the Australian states and territories as a whole compared with their respective population incidences.  A statistically significant increased risk of breast cancer was found among ABC female employees in Queensland, consistent with the findings in an earlier report.”

The Toowong incident created considerable concern amongst staff, to such an extent that the corporation decided to close the entire facility and relocate all the broadcasting processes.  Unless this was already a corporate strategy the decision was brave, particularly when the initial investigations showed that the concern was not justified for Toowong specifically.

The ABC has an excellent timeline of media statements about the incident online.

Several issues from the latest report are worth noting.  Researchers had a harder task in accumulating data due to the plethora of formats for human resources data.  The good news is that the data was available at all but it showed a deficiency in records continuity.  Document control can be time consuming and, therefore, costly, but an issue may occur where quick access is required, particularly with the aim of minimising anxiety and concern so that  outrage can be avoided.  The need for such data is likely to be infrequent but when required a well organised and maintained set of health data could be enormously helpful for personnel management as well as research.

One of the eMJA editorials takes a swipe at the mass media for clouding the public’s understanding of cancer health risks.  It is an understandable response from the medical research perspective but is also an indication of the struggle that many professions and organisations are having with the rapid pace of information dissemination in the modern web-connected world.  Many of the proven risk communication techniques over the past thirty years must now match the pace of the social networks and internet communications, or new communication measures developed.

The immediacy and reach of Twitter is seen as one of its major advantages but the veracity of the data can be highly questionable as it is sometimes impossible to identify the source of information.  This was recently discussed briefly in a video hosted by The Australian newspaper.

The challenge for medical authorities and risk communicators is to use the same mass media formats as used by their audience but to do this from an authoritative base that is already established.  There is no doubt that lessons are available in what to do and what not to do from the BP Gulf of Mexico incident.  Note  Tony Hayward’s recent comments about getting his life back.

The eMJA editor, Bernard Stewart, comments that although many Australian women are becoming educated about breast cancer risks, anxiety will persist and, he may be right, that the media is not helping in minimising the anxiety.  It must be noted that the media has been used very well in educating women about breast cancer risks, the need to self-check and undergo regular examinations.  Sometimes every product on the supermarket shelf has a pink carton or bottle top.  But the mass media is a tool, even though it sometimes appears to be an amorphous beast, and, often, many of those bemoaning the excesses of the media do so from a position of confusion and a feeling of helplessness because just how do you start “playing the media game”.

Kevin Jones

PS. One place may be by getting the latest social media marketing information.  Although the book does not discuss risk communication the 2nd edition of Social Media Survival Guide by Sherrie Madia and Paul Borgese is a good start.  The publishers have provided SafetyAtWorkBlog with a review copy.

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