NCI Grant Allows Assistant Professor Megan Lewis to Delve Deeper into Spousal Communication

May 13, 2005
For about 10 years, HBHE assistant professor Megan Lewis has been researching the impact of spousal (or, more precisely, domestic partner) communication on health behaviors. Now, because of a major grant from the National Cancer Institute, she has the opportunity to carry that research even further. In the coming months, she will begin work on a project aimed, ultimately, at developing interventions that use persuasive spousal communication effectively to support health behavior change. As Megan puts it, “All my research thus far points to the conclusion that spouses are most likely the ones who persuade their partners to adopt healthier behaviors, behaviors that reduce cancer risk. Domestic partners model ‘good’ health behaviors; recruit doctors and family members to help them reinforce their messages; buy healthier foods at the grocery store; and use persuasion, or verbal efforts, as a way to get their spouses to engage in the behaviors they’re trying to promote. As of yet, however, we haven’t been able to harness this behavior changing influence very well.”Megan explained that spouses’ persuasive communication efforts do have an impact on preventive health behaviors, but researchers still don’t have a clear grasp of what kinds of communication are most effective. “In the past,” she says, “interventions that relied on spousal communication have not been very successful, probably because they were premature. They mainly drew from research based on self-reports of how couples interacted. Before we can design effective programs, however, we need to find out more about how couples actually communicate around health behavior change. To do that, we need better methodologies for capturing this information.”

Megan’s research project promises to do just that. In the coming months, she and her team will study the persuasive communication styles of 80 couples. One member of each couple will be at high risk of colon cancer and will not have engaged in the amount of physical activity recommended to reduce that cancer risk. After capturing how the couples interact on videotape with guided discussion questions, the research team will use an innovative, highly reliable observational coding system developed by Megan and her students to analyze the persuasive communication strategies used. Analysis of these data will then be coupled with information gleaned from independently completed surveys and measurements of physical activity levels to determine which kinds of communication are most effective in changing physical activity behaviors. “My sense is that positive, direct communication that allows for give and take may be the key to effective communication among couples. If this proves to be the case,” Megan said, “we may have a good starting point for building a whole range of effective preventive interventions in the future.”

For further information please contact Catherine Vorick either by phone at 919-966-3918 or by email at cvorick@email.unc.edu