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Updated 1:00 PM June 30, 2003



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$10M grant to fund center on shaping healthy behavior

As much as 70 percent of a person's likelihood of developing cancer can be attributed to his or her behavior, says a U-M researcher. But getting people to change their unhealthy ways is a complex challenge.

Victor Strecher, who has spent the better part of two decades examining ways to help people change their behaviors to become healthier, is forming the new U-M Center for Health Communications Research. With a new $10 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the center will study how information technology can tailor behavior advice to the specific needs of the user.

"The problem we have," Strecher says, "is reaching as many people as mass media does, while being as effective as an interaction with an expert counselor can be."

Information by itself is not the answer. Most smokers know their habit is unhealthy, yet they keep doing it, Strecher says.

But messages customized to an individual's specific motives, family and social environment, health history, and other relevant factors can change unwanted behaviors far more than generic, one-size-fits-all information. Strecher has seen a 50-300 percent improvement in participants' abilities to quit smoking, lose weight, eat more fruits and vegetables, and get essential cancer screenings after computer-tailored advice.

While Strecher has seen customized messages work on health concerns from obesity to regular mammograms, what remains unclear is how and why they work.

The Center for Health Communications Research will team health experts with U-M statisticians and biostatisticians, who will build complex sequential experimental designs to figure out which "active ingredients" of a message change behavior. Roderick Little, professor of biostatistics, will head the statistical team.

Strecher uses an expert software system and a detailed patient questionnaire to create specialized newsletters focusing on that person's wants and needs.

U-M researchers will look at outcomes in three trials: one aimed at helping people quit smoking, another encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and a third assisting women in deciding whether to take a specific drug to prevent breast cancer. They will collaborate with the NCI's Cancer Research Network, a group of 11 health maintenance organizations around the country, to do the trials.

Determining how best to influence behavior has implications for HMOs and doctors, as well as health-focused agencies such as the American Cancer Society and private businesses including Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, Strecher says.

Strecher is professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health, director of the Health Media Research Laboratory, and associate director for cancer prevention and control at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. He also heads HealthMedia, a U-M spin-off company focused on tailored health products.

Along with U-M, Saint Louis University, University of Wisconsin and University of Pennsylvania are part of the NCI's $40 million grant initiative.

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