Public understanding of self-isolation has room for improvement

Half of a representative sample of the Irish public failed to recognise that someone experiencing flu-like symptoms needed to self-isolate, in an experiment conducted by the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. While almost 88 per cent understood that someone with a fever or dry cough should self-isolate, this fell to 49 per cent for less common symptoms of COVID-19, such as a sore throat or aches and pains.

The study, conducted during April, presented members of the public with different scenarios and asked them to judge whether the situation required self-isolation. People were more likely to say that someone who was asymptomatic but had been in contact with a suspected case of COVID-19 should self-isolate, than someone with flu-like symptoms who had not had such contact.

The public health guidelines are clear that people with any flu-like symptoms are required to self-isolate.

“Self-isolation will continue to be a vital part of the battle against COVID-19 in coming months, so we need people to understand when it is needed,” said Pete Lunn, head of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. “Our study shows that while understanding in relation to primary symptoms is good, the message about less common symptoms has not yet been fully absorbed.”

The study also tested a range of communication techniques designed by behavioural scientists to improve decisions about self-isolation. It found that simple flow diagrams (called “decision trees”) improved decision making. An online planning tool helped people to feel that they could cope with a period of self-isolation, especially younger people, who are less confident about coping. Lastly, providing advice in the form of infographics improved people’s retention and understanding of information about how to self-isolate.

Findings from the study have now been incorporated into the Department of Health social media campaign and have been promoted by the Department through its online channels. The ongoing research programme is using behavioural science to test public health materials designed to help people to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.