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CDC's infographic about women and alcohol

Did you see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) announcement last week on alcohol consumption and pregnancy? The agency advised women who want to become pregnant to stop drinking alcohol as soon as they stop using birth control. You may have missed the official announcement, but it’s been hard to avoid the negative reactions and articles on social media.

CDC, 2016

Many have read the CDC’s infographic differently than it was intended. So, what lead to this mix up of messages?

The way we talk about health matters. The words we use, the pictures we include, and actions we suggest change how people think about health issues. At HLM, we took a closer look at the announcement and infographic from a plain language perspective:

  • What’s the intended purpose? The CDC’s main message is if you are a woman who wants to become pregnant, you should stop drinking alcohol as soon as you stop using birth control because alcohol can harm your baby before you find out you are pregnant. The latest CDC report found that 3 in 4 women who want to get pregnant and who stop using birth control do not actually stop drinking alcohol. The intent is to prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs): a group of conditions that can occur in people whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy and include physical, mental and behavioral problems.

  • Who’s the target audience? The target audience for the message is meant to be pregnant women and women who are trying to get pregnant, but the CDC’s infographic also seems to be targeted to healthcare practitioners rather than to the general public. The infographic includes steps that healthcare practitioners can take to help female patients with alcohol problems, rather than concrete steps women can take to prevent FASDs. Separate patient-centered and provider-centered materials would have been more effective for the CDC’s message.

Here’s the mix-up: The infographic included recommendations against alcohol use for all women, rather than the target audience: those most at risk of exposing their babies to FASDs. Many young women felt attacked by the recommendations, claiming that the CDC was shaming them for their sexual behaviors and drinking habits.

This brings us to three tips to follow when creating health messages:

  • Think about the audience: This is the first step to tailor your message. Are you talking to physicians and nurses or patients? This will help make sure the message is received as intended. It is best to create separate materials for different audiences to make information as clear as possible.

  • Think about your purpose and place the most important information first: In the CDC’s case, the most important information was buried in their graphic and their press release. Moving the main message further up in both could have made their recommendations easier to understand.

  • Test the effectiveness of your message: Before you release a message that could be antagonizing to your audience, it’s often useful to test your information on your intended audience. This can reveal flaws in the delivery of your message.


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