Teens may have a legal right to give informed consent, but do they have the scientific literacy to make informed decisions?
Probably not, judging by a poor understanding of basic scientific principles in North America over all. Most adults, for example, do not understand the difference between cause (the reason something happens) and correlation (an association between two or more things that do not necessarily have a cause-effect relationship), according to Dr. Andy Oxman, a researcher in the field of evidence-based medicine for 30 years.
The knowledge gap explains why so many people are taken in by headlines such as "Eating brown rice cuts diabetes risk," not to mention the wacky health advice touted by the likes of Hollywood actor Gwyneth Paltrow and TV personality Dr. Oz.
With basic instruction, however, kids as young as 10 can grasp key concepts in evidence-based medicine, including the need to assess the risks of a given treatment as well as the benefits, said Oxman, who is based in Oslo, Norway.
Oxman has teamed up with health scientists, educators, clinicians and communicators from 11 countries – including Australia, Uganda and Britain – to create educational materials designed to teach kids the critical thinking skills they need to make informed health decisions.
The group brainstormed ideas, including a computer game, until they came up with a lesson plan in the form of a comic book. The program is being tested as an educational tool in a randomized trial in 120 schools in Uganda involving 15,000 10- to 12-year-olds, of which half are in a control group. An international school in Oslo has already incorporated the teaching materials into its curriculum.
While the program has yet to make the leap to North America, the comic book and other learning resources are available as free downloads from InformedHealthChoices.org.
As digital citizens, today's children are bombarded by more junk science than ever before, Oxman pointed out. Children should participate in health decisions, he agreed, "but to be involved, it's really important that they're able to think critically about the options we have," he said. "The two things go hand in hand."