Communicating health and cancer risks in contexts where there is high uncertainty

Communicating health and cancer risks in contexts where there is high uncertainty


Many of our projects directly address the challenges of uncertainty in the cancer context, including how oncologists communicate about uncertainty with their patients, how patients make decisions when faced with risk information and uncertain outcomes, and patterns in uncertainties about cancer risk in the general public by levels of health literacy, education, avoidance, and other characteristics. Our work has implications for intervention development across clinical and public health contexts, and basic social science theory of how people cope with uncertainty in health contexts, and in cancer care, most specifically.

Some example projects are:

Project 1: Communication Challenges in Precision Oncology

Dr. Hay and Dr. Hamilton recently conducted a project to understand oncology care providers’ communication challenges about the topic of precision medicine. In collaboration with colleagues in the MSK ComSkil program, the team led a series of focus groups with oncology care providers to better understand their interactions with patients and families regarding innovations in precision oncology and cancer treatments.

  • Relevant Links: MSK ComSkil Program
  • Hamilton JG, Banerjee SC, Carlsson SV, Vera J, Lynch KA. Sar-Graycar L, Martin C, Parker PA, Hay JL. Clinician perspectives on communication and implementation challenges in precision oncology. Personalized Medicine. 2021; 18(6): 559-572. PMID: 34173196. PMCID: PMC8607478.

Project 2: Don’t Know Responding to Risk Perception Questions

Dr. Hay and her collaborators have conducted studies confirming that large proportions of the general population are uncertain about their cancer risk, and that knowledge deficits and cancer risk information avoidance are important correlates of cancer risk uncertainty. Our continued work in this area is poised to identify intervention solutions to this problem, given that public health approaches to cancer prevention and control commonly target cancer risk perceptions to motivate protective behaviors.

  • Waters EA, Kiviniemi MT, Hay JL, Orom H. Dismissing “Don’t Know” Responses to Perceived Risk Survey Items Threatens the Validity of Theoretical and Empirical Behavior-Change Research. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2022;17(3):841-851. PMCID: PMC9081103
  • Hay JL, Schofield E, Kiviniemi MT, Waters EA, Chen X, Kaphingst K, Li Y, Orom H. Examining strategies for addressing high levels of “don’t know” responding to risk perception questions for colorectal cancer and diabetes: An experimental investigation. Psychology and Health. 2020:1-17. PMCID: PMC7952023.