by Morenike Ajidagba (ComSciCon-CanWest 2020)
Health research has evolved to become more patient-oriented with increasing patient engagement. How do researchers utilize online communication and social media as a means to disseminate accurate information to and foster a healthy and trustworthy relationship with their target audience? Blogging can be useful to inform patients and their families on health options, to create open communication and mutual respect between patients and researchers and advance public health research.
In his book, Corporate Communication, Joep Cornelissen states that ‘there is a widespread belief that the future of any company critically depends on how it is viewed by key stakeholders, such as shareholders, investors, customers, employees and members of the general public’. In health research, where the majority of stakeholders are patients, this means that communication between researchers and patients must be clear and used to both strengthen and nurture relationships. Engaging patients throughout the research process and beyond ensures better outcomes for the patient and researcher, leading to effective improvements to the healthcare system overall. In fact, one of the strategic goals for the Alberta Health Services (AHS) in 2019-20 was to develop stronger ties with patients and communities through community engagement and thoughtful and responsive communication. The ‘Together4Health’ initiative, an online platform where Albertans can share their thoughts on various healthcare topics, aims to accomplish this goal.
In addition to facilitating communication between various stakeholder groups, increasing accessibility to science research is also important for getting the researchers recognition for their work and for providing information to a larger audience that otherwise might not encounter it. Community initiatives that support science education within the community such as the Telus World of Science in Edmonton, Alberta, have had a great impact in introducing general audiences to simple, understandable, and practical science knowledge.
In a more media savvy and technologically advanced society, knowledge dissemination in the field of science can result in an infodemic-- a barrage of misinformation created by an output of excessive and potentially inaccurate information. In an intense information output environment with a desire to forcefully advance the field of science, it can become difficult to separate scientific truth from unverified information. Social media notoriously allows people to quickly publish information without verifying sources, and that information can easily spread in a split second across the globe and can even go viral. It seems that the more ridiculous a claim is, the greater its potential to become a viral sensation, especially when backed by popular figures. Therefore, it is key to tackle this issue of misinformation by using the very forum of social media that is largely used to propagate misinformation.
In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the extent to which misinformation via social media can be detrimental to public health and rehabilitation of vulnerable individuals in society. Misinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic may have reduced mask wearing and the public’s tendency to abide by social distancing guidelines. Claims spread online have suggested unverified treatments against the virus, as well as conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus and its emergence into the world. Misinformation myth busters, such as Prof Timothy Caulfield, believe that scientists across the world must unite now, more than ever, to fight the infodemic facing the world of science communication. This requires that academics and science researchers develop communication skills that combine their expertise, research abilities and social engagement together to work with practitioners and policymakers for impactful change. Efforts taken by the province of Ontario to use virtual care tools to optimize and improve access to specialized care in their 2018 proposed Health Strategy have attempted to accomplish this goal of uniting scientists, practitioners, and policymakers.
The stakeholder group consisting of patients and their families, caregivers, health care practitioners, health agencies, and the general public not only benefit from health research, but can actively participate in it. For example, patients can take on the role of researchers and become prominent within the health research field. Alberta has set principles to guide patient-oriented research that ensures patients are supported as active partners in health research. This support would mean that the traditional lab setting will grow to include not just science researchers, but also laypeople who can contribute significantly to research outcomes.
Blogging has been a growing social phenomenon with the potential to assist with health education, research collaboration and dissemination. Introducing blogging will add to the online ecosystem as a way to encourage trust and mutual respect between researchers and patients as well as to encourage collaboration between the stakeholders. Blogging also provides a space for individuals to be properly equipped, educated and well versed on health research. In my opinion, to mitigate the impact of misinformation, blogging is a less stringent way of sharing information but still with each party being held responsible for what is shared online, thus it reduces the weight and impact otherwise caused by misinformation. Patients have diverse experiences and backgrounds, and social sites like blogs can provide an informal and easy way to access necessary information that helps individuals live a better life.
Not every scientist can relate to every patient, but the more we diversify the information mediums, then the greater the possibility of access patients have to useful information. By working from both the researcher’s and patient’s perspectives, we are bound to continue to push the field of health research forward and provide more effective conduits to disseminate accurate health information. Blogging is an avenue to encourage two way dialogue between the public and researchers and it can be an effective communication tool for engaging patients and disseminating information in the field of health research movement; this can greatly enhance and improve the future of public health.
Morenike Ajidagba is a student of Rehabilitation Science at the University of Alberta specializing in obesity research with a keen interest in utilizing communication tools to engage individuals and understanding how these tools can aid and enhance the lived experience of these individuals. Passionate about growing as a communicator and policy maker with aspirations to also encourage others to share their experiences and expertise in their unique spaces of influence!