They say a picture can convey a thousand words, and researchers have found that using medical imaging technologies that can visualize health may discourage risk-related behaviours more than non-visual information. The meta-analysis, published by scientists at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Public Health and Primary Care and MRC Epidemiology Unit in the open access journal PLOS Medicine, finds that when individuals undergo an imaging procedure and are shown visual personalized information about their own risk of disease, they may be more likely to reduce risky behaviours.
Non-communicable diseases are estimated to account for over two-thirds of deaths worldwide each year and are linked to behaviours such as smoking, poor diet, and lack of physical exercise. Behaviour change can reduce risks and many interventions intend to motivate such change. Researchers are keen to understand whether the growing use of medical imaging technologies could help.
Professor Simon Griffin from the MRC Epidemiology Unit, a senior author on the paper, commented:
Most studies suggest that provision of information about disease risk in verbal or written format does not lead to sustained changes in health-related behaviours. However, this review suggests that sharing the results of medical imaging appears to be a more effective motivator of behaviour change.”
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 21 randomized controlled trials involving over 9,000 adult participants. Participants were either shown visual examples of personalized risk information following an imaging procedure, such as computed tomography, ultrasound, or radiography, in addition to health information or advice, or they received health information or advice with no visual feedback. The trials reported on behaviours including smoking, medication use, physical activity, diet, oral hygiene, sun protection, tanning booth use, blood glucose testing, skin self-examination, and foot care.
The strongest evidence was for smoking reduction, a healthier diet, increased physical activity, and increased oral hygiene behaviours. Single studies also reported increased skin self-examination and foot care following visualized feedback. The other behaviours were improved by visual interventions, but results were not statistically significant. The authors conclude that the growth of medical imaging technology could be capitalized on to help people change and reduce disease risks.
Dr Gareth Hollands, a researcher at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care and first author on the paper, commented:
Medical imaging scans are used ever more widely by healthcare professionals. By gathering together the existing research, this study suggests that showing the scan results to patients to highlight the state of their health could motivate them to behave in a healthier way.”
- Read the paper: Gareth Hollands, Juliet A Usher-Smith, Rana Hasan, Florence Alexander, Natasha Clarke, Simon J Griffin. Visualising health risks with medical imaging for changing recipients’ health behaviours and risk factors: Systematic review with meta-analysis. PLOS Medicine 03 March 2022.