Different questions for more answers?

This week I have been pondering the larger issue. You may wonder what brought this on?

I live in Queensland, the Australian state with the dubious title of ‘skin cancer capital of the world’. I was a child of the 70’s. We spent hours in the sun covered in all sorts of oil that smelled great (coconut especially) to see who could get the darkest tan in the shortest time possible. Sleepovers often involved mutual peeling of large segments of skin, which ended up being some sort of weird Silence-of-the-Lambs-esque trophy. Slip, slop, slap was new, and for the social misfits only.

Needless to say in an era of increased awareness of the considerable skin cancer risks of too much sun exposure, I am very proud of the fact that my children have never been sunburnt. Well, I can no longer say this.

One day this week my 14 year-old son returned from a school field trip redder than a tomato, despite his protestations that yes indeed he did wear his hat (it kept blowing off in the wind at the beach, according to his urgent explanation to his very cross mother) and yes indeed he did wear sunscreen (apparently of SPF1 as he was red red red!). As a child who wears glasses, I was particularly concerned about a long day in which the sun’s UV rays were concentrated into his eyeballs. He (unconvincingly) claimed that he wore his sunglasses all day. Even worse – his maternal grandmother had a particularly nasty and aggressive skin cancer cut from her face just one week earlier, so sun protection is very high on our family’s radar at the moment!

After a lengthy – and at times loud – discussion about the need to look after his skin particularly in our climate, and that now he is growing up he needs to start taking care of his own health (yes, he did agree that having Mum attend the field trips with him would be embarrassing, and yes, it would definitely harm his reputation with the opposite sex), I started to think about injury prevention more generally.

Initially I had tried to identify the predictors of risk as a way to intervene: what about this field trip contributed to him being sunburnt? Like most injury prevention researchers, we want to know what contributes so we can ameliorate or eliminate it altogether. According to him, hat, check; sunscreen, check; sunglasses, check. Then I started to think about it a different way. What about this field trip helped him be less-sunburnt? What protected his classmates from sunburn (if indeed, as I hope, some managed to avoid the sun’s wrath)?

Maybe as injury prevention researchers we should be spending more time considering what helps to minimise risk, not only what increases risk. I think these ‘different questions’ will lead to more answers in the long term. Think big picture!

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