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Helping Victorians reduce their risk: a Q&A with Dr Sarah Durkin

Monday 7 December, 2020

Sarah Durkin is a principal research fellow in our Behavioural Science Division. Thanks to you, she’s able to help the Victorian community change their behaviour to reduce their cancer risk.

What is behavioural science and what role does it play in cancer control?

Behavioural Science covers disciplines dedicated to understanding human behaviour and can include psychology, sociology, neurobiology, behavioural economics, and political science. The work we do at Cancer Council focuses on finding the best ways to prevent or reduce behaviours that increase cancer risk and encourage evidence-based screening.

What areas of research do you work on?

I examine the impact of cancer prevention campaigns and tobacco control policies, such as plain packaging, graphic health warnings, price increases and smoke-free legislation. I also explore the effects of e-cigarette ads, alcohol harm and obesity prevention messages, and ads for bowel cancer screening.

How does behavioural science help the Victorian community?

Behavioural science helps us identify important gaps in knowledge or motivation and any barriers or facilitators to healthy behaviour change. Our world leading cancer prevention programs such as Quit and SunSmart can develop campaigns or advocate for policy changes that address these issues so that the Victorian community become healthier. We also evaluate the effectiveness of these campaigns and policy changes and feedback learnings to help improve their performance. 

What work did you do on bowel cancer campaigns in 2020?

We examined the impact of the campaigns. Using data on invites and returns of bowel cancer screening kits, we found that these campaigns can increase return rates by 10% while and soon after they are broadcast.

How successful have our bowel cancer campaigns been?

Very successful! Our 2017 and 2018 campaigns led to more than 10,000 extra kits being returned, with hundreds of cancers prevented and lives saved.

This success encouraged the Federal Government to fund a three-burst $10 million national campaign in 2019, and we'll report on the results of this campaign soon. We do know that results diminish when campaigns go off air, so further campaign activity is required to encourage people to participate.

“The generous support from the Victorian community allows us to run campaigns like the bowel cancer screening campaign, which we know has saved Victorian lives.”