Published: 2020-04-06

Making decisions related to health – physical, mental and emotional wellbeing – can be a matter of life and death. This is why governments invest billions of dollars annually into health education. But health promotional campaigns do not always achieve their desired objectives. Associate Professor Timothy Fung and his research team, in a series of award-winning research projects, have been developing persuasive strategies that may greatly improve the effectiveness of these vital messages.

Fung, of the Department of Communication Studies, has been focusing on the pressing issue of organ donation. Statistics from Hong Kong Hospital Authority reveal that in 2019, the total number of kidney donations was 57, as against a total of 2268 patients awaiting transplants. Skepticism about organ donation can often be traced to lack of awareness and sometimes, cultural superstitions. Myths surrounding organ donation include the belief that it is a desecration of the human body – living or dead, and some cultures believe a person is no longer whole and functional once an organ has been donated. One way to debunk these myths and bridge the communication gap is to relate the successful experiences of others. By incorporating inspired storytelling as a form of persuasive message, people can learn from these stories and replicate them. Fung’s team developed a narrative-based strategy using storytelling as a way to persuade potential donors. The strategy has been adopted in the creation of an animated video, “Say your Wish, Save a Life”, used to promote family discussions about organ donation.

While health communication researchers recognise storytelling as an effective method of persuasion and health behavioural change, it was unclear which story features and methods are most effective. In a grant-funded study, Fung examined how presenting a story in a counterfactual manner might enhance patients’ adherence to treatment regimens. The study, which won the Top Faculty paper at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s 2018 Conference, found that using counterfactual thinking strategy – focusing on what might have been – can trigger greater anticipated regret and mental simulation. This, in turn, can change the audience’s attitude and behavioral intention. To put this strategy to test, Fung and his team designed separate animated videos employing the counterfactual thinking-based storytelling to promote treatment adherence among patients undergoing peritoneal dialysis, and to persuade organ donors to reveal their wishes to their families. Both proved effective.

Fung’s study identified emotional responses, such as uncertainty and anxiety about certain health issues, as some factors that motivate people to change their risky health behaviours. Fung has been contracted by the Hong Kong Department of Health to produce two live-action promotional videos, “My Family Doctor Walk With Me”, to advocate for the family doctor health care model. Fung’s award-winning research outputs encourage health promotion practitioners in Hong Kong to employ evidence-based and theory-driven strategies to design persuasive health campaigns, rather than rely on their intuition and experiences.

Dr Timothy Fung, Associate Professor of Department of Communication Studies
Dr Kelvin Lee, Senior Lecturer of Academy of Film
Dr M. F. Lam, Nephrologist, Project Consultant

Narrative Persuasion and Treatment Adherence (A Counterfactual-based Story)

My Family Doctor Walk With Me

My Family Doctor