The health-care reform debate rages and, amid all the bluster and political posturing, sometimes a crucial element is lost – facts.

Two marketing professors in West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics have published an article in The Journal of Consumer Affairs that gives the United States low marks for health literacy and places the blame on poor approaches to communications.

In “On Break-up Cliches Guiding Health Literacy’s Future,” Drs. Karen France and Paula Bone, along with co-author USDA social science analyst Kathryn Aikin, contend that too much information about health issues inaccurate, confusing and contradicting information, among other factors, are a part of what’s wrong with the nation’s health-care system.

“I think health literacy is certainly relevant in the current debate,” Bone said. “There are a lot of choices that must be made, and we need to find out how to help people make the best decisions themselves. And it’s way more than just providing enormous pamphlets.”

In the article, Bone contends that consumer responsibility is also important. If citizens are taking actions that put their health at risk, or failing to take actions that will improve their health—actions that are under their control—then that needs to be built into health-communication efforts.

Unfortunately, those communicating about health issues must understand that consumers often lack motivation or fail to see the need to use information or engage in health-enhancing behaviors. A constant barrage of information does not help the situation.

“A lot of the theories we have in marketing and psychology on how to best communicate to consumers are not being used effectively to improve health literacy in this country,” France said. “For example, in an effort to be comprehensive, to include all the pertinent information, there is information overload—consumers simply cannot process that amount of information—and the things we want consumers to understand are lost in the process.”

She gives the example how consumers choose health insurance plans.

“We know from consumer behavior research that people can handle three to seven—seven being the maximum—pieces of information at one time. The temptation to provide all the relevant information is strong; we have so much we need to share. However, health care educators and communicators should stop using this tactic.”

The professors characterize the consumer health market as “rife with inaccurate information.” An example is consumers’ belief that autism is caused by childhood immunizations, although research shows this is unlikely. Another example is genetically modified food.

“Consumers fret about the safety of consuming foods developed using biotechnology?” Yet, there is no scientific evidence that foods developed using biotechnology pose any risk greater than that posed by those developed using traditional cross-breeding techniques.”

France earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. She does research in public policy including topics in pricing perceptions, promotional practices and packaging perceptions. She teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in marketing.

Bone earned a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina. She specializes in consumer behavior, public policy and marketing ethics. She and France had the opportunity to present their findings to the United States Food and Drug Administration in September of 2004. She is also studying how consumers make trade-offs between short-term pleasures and long-term goals.



CONTACT: Karen France
(304) 293-7957,


Paula Bone
(304) 293-7959,