Our study is significant in that our findings suggest that this partnership between an academic medical center and a community science museum made a positive impact in two important areas: intention to improve health habits in diet and exercise, and participants’ knowledge about and interesting health research being conducted at OHSU. The BodyWorlds
exhibit provided a vehicle to bring approximately 400,000 visitors to OMSI, and we used this opportunity to improve the public’s understanding of NIH funded research being conducted at OHSU schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry and engineering, all related to the health professions. Our findings suggest that we have made a positive impact in two important areas: intention to improve habits in diet and exercise, and participants’ knowledge about and interest in health research being conducted at OHSU. Why is intention to change health behaviors important? Several studies have shown that the greatest predictor of behavior change is change in intention to change that behavior [17
]. If our participants were considering a health behavior change and we were able to reinforce that intention or identify the initial need to change behavior, then we may have had an impact on their stage of health behavior change [19
] from pre- contemplation or contemplation toward action or maintenance of future health.
Interestingly, lifestyle factors were the most frequently mentioned topic in response to the open-ended question on top health or healthcare concerns. Each of these factors (diet, fitness, weight, preventive care) require action on the part of the individual, and is further evidence that BodyWorlds, in conjunction with the OHSU thematic research exhibits, may have had an impact on health behavior. The mechanism is as yet unclear, although it may be a combination of fear (seeing real-world anatomical examples of the negative effects of unhealthy choices) and empowerment that comes from a better understanding of the body. Further research could aid in elucidating the process through which exhibits of this sort move people along the continuum of health behavior change.
Why is participants’ knowledge about and interest in health research important? The NIH has funded research at academic institutions for decades that have made little difference in most health indices, such as morbidity and mortality. The NIH’s CTSA program is designed to improve the translation of research from “bench to bedside” and beyond into public health and community-based clinical practice [4
]. To do this successfully will require academic institutions to actively partner with community-based agencies and organizations. While this has occurred in the past, efforts need to increase rapidly and in many ways be different than they have over the past decades. It was sometimes difficult to recruit active NIH-researchers to leave their labs and come down to the local science museum to talk with the public. The themse listed arose from those groups willing to make such a commitment and to spend time developing explanatory posters and mechanisms for demonstrations. The program was designed so that visitors of the exhibit would emerge from the BodyWorlds
exhibit and then directly enter the OHSU health research exhibits. Evaluations were conducted for both the general public visitors (age 18 and older) and for school groups, the latter of which involved the “Science in the City” Program (age 10–18). Specific methods and findings from the child portion of the project are reported elsewhere [20
]. Past and present employees of OHSU were excluded from the study.
In prior studies, the academic institution received all or most of the funding for the research and community members volunteered their time and resources. More recently, community-based participatory research (CBPR) approaches have emerged and have been used in studies ranging from smoking cessation behavior to overcoming health disparities [21
]. Ideally, CBPR is a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves all partners in the research process and recognizes the unique strengths that each brings [25
]. CBPR has been associated with enhanced recruitment to research studies [26
], and is particularly important for studies on culturally diverse populations [27
]. Clearly, the traditional scope of public health must be broadened to advance a new vision for improving community health and wellness.
In addition, accrual of patients to both clinical trials for disease treatment as well as studies to promote health among all population age groups can be challenging, especially in underserved populations [29
]. If the type of program we conducted could improve interest in research, accrual could potentially become easier.
Answers to the open-ended question about what visitors to the thematic week exhibits learned from the displays also suggest that a sizable number increased their understanding of the scope of research conducted at OHSU, as well as the inherent value of health research. Respondents also indicated an appreciation for the fact that OHSU was involved with the community and was dedicated to sharing information with the public. As one person said, they are “trying to get information to the public, not just to [the] academic community.”
We were surprised to learn that we made a nearly 50% improvement in a well educated sample’s understanding that NIH research is funded by U.S. tax dollars. We expected that more participants, given the demographic characteristics of our participants having attended or graduated from college, would understand how NIH is funded. We were also surprised that this population appeared somewhat reluctant to speak with many of the physician or scientists who served in the role of experts for both the BodyWorlds and OHSU research exhibits. It may be that the public, in general, are intimidated by individuals with advanced training or perhaps those with advanced training do not appear open or welcoming to the public. More research is needed to understand this issue fully. If physicians and scientists are to be “stewards” of the health of the nation, successfully achieving appropriate interactions will be important.
A strength of our study is that we achieved a sample of nearly 1,000 respondents, which when compared to OMSI’s evaluation of characteristics of those who attended the exhibit were very similar. This suggests that our respondents were fairly typical of the type of community member who would attend this type of program.
Our study has some important limitations. Respondents took part in a post exhibit survey that was administered orally by trained research assistants. Though careful training and monitoring of collection procedures occurred, the study design as an observational post-test is limited. The evaluation sub-committee spent significant efforts attempting to implement a pre-post test design to more accurately capture changes in knowledge, attitudes and intended health changes, but the logistics of enrolling at the pre-period and capturing follow-up data following a very intense experience of examining closely human cadavers was not feasible. In addition, our design did not allow for a comparison group, which might have been possible if another exhibit on a different area had been available, but this was not the case. Despite these limitations, it is important to share findings in the published literature to provide a foundation of research on engaging the public and improving their understanding of and interest in health-related research.
In conclusion, research partnerships between academic institutions and community-based museums appear to be viable ways to inform the public about NIH research, stimulate their interest as future participants, and possibly influence their intention to improve health behaviors.