How do global health academics “reach the people”?

Today, at the Triangle Global Health Consortium annual conference, our Center Director Gavin Yamey was a panelist on a panel called “Reach the People: How to Communicate Global Health Issues and Solutions.” Below, we post his 10-minute panel presentation.

In the next 10 minutes, I’m going to try and answer the question: How does a global health academic like me “reach the people”?

I’m taking a bit of liberty in thinking about who “the people” are.  I direct a global health policy center at Duke, and for us our key engagement is with a broad array of policymakers – global health funders, foundations, ministries of health and finance, NGOs, and so on. We want our analytic work to influence the conversations, the debates, the dialogue among these global health actors. But I think the way in which we go about trying to influence these conversations has a lot of parallels with broader public engagement.

I’m going to be giving a personal take informed by my experience as a physician, a medical journalist and journal editor, and, then for last 9 years, as an academic. I was honored and delighted when the panel moderator Brian Simpson, editor-in-chief of Global Health Now, asked me to be on this panel and I think he did so because I’ve done quite a bit of public communication of global health science – on public radio, TV, newspapers, Twitter, and so on. I’ve learned a few things along the way that I want to share.

I’ve certainly also made plenty of blunders – for example, I did a 20-minute live interview on NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow on low-tech approaches to global health improvement, and I forgot to switch off my cell phone alerts. And of course my friend Jeanette texted me to tell me that I was live on the radio, which I already knew, and you could hear the phone jingling in the background and me freaking out. So: lesson 1, switch off your cell!

There are three things I want to discuss: Why? What? How?

  1. Why engage the public?
  2. What strategies can you use?
  3. How to communicate?

Number 1: Why engage the public? We’re all so busy, who has the time?

I think it’s worth thinking about what public engagement means. It goes beyond just giving out information, which is a one way street; it even goes beyond consultation, where you get feedback from the public. To me it means a more active type of participation, which ultimately can empower people.

There’s a brilliant quote from the UK’s Earlham Institute, a genomics research institute:

“Scientists, whether we like it or not, have a duty to shout about our research—and not just in the echo chambers of Twitter or science conferences. Misconceptions among the general public can quickly become government policy, and vice versa, often flying in the face of evidence.”

A duty to shout about our research.

That’s it! I say this to all my students, they’re so bored of hearing it: global health research is conducted for the public good, so you have a moral duty to ensure that the public knows about it. Obviously, this means that you must make your research open access—you cannot lock it away behind subscription and copyright barriers—but I feel you should go further than this. A paper published in a journal is not the end point—societal improvement is.  This is reflected in Duke’s lovely motto: “knowledge in the service of the society.”

As global health researchers, we can be public servants. Through public engagement, we can help to:

  • Improve public understanding of global health challenges
  • We can build knowledge and awareness of our global connectedness (like ships on an ocean, we rise and fall together), we can build support and empathy for those left behind by inequities
  • We can counter myths and misconceptions
  • We can build public trust in science
  • We can gain new ideas from the public, through a two-way street, a bi-directional conversation, bringing citizens voices to the table.

And, crucially, there is evidence that policymakers are influenced by public opinion—so public engagement is an important component in driving evidence-based policy.

Number 2: What strategies can you use?

You’ve already heard plenty on this today, so I’ll try not to duplicate anything. I want to mention: knowing your audience, article types, Twitter, and your two best friends.

Your audience: Public engagement begins before you even start your research. It begins by knowing your audience. For our Center at Duke, this means identifying the change agents—who are the policy actors who can effect change?—and then asking them: what research questions do you need answered? In other words, we tailor our research to answer questions that matter to policymakers. This makes it much more likely that the evidence that we generate gets used. It’s known as strategic science, a term coined by Duke’s Kelly Brownell. We spend time getting to know these change agents: what makes them tick, what are their values, what keeps them up at night?

There are lots of ways you can similarly engage the public in shaping your research—participatory action research, for example, involves researchers and the public working together to study a problem and find ways to address it.

Article types: Although the “research article” in a peer-reviewed journal is often seen as the holy grail, we sell ourselves massively short if we don’t become experts in generating other kinds of articles to get our message out. Every academic, I believe, should learn how to write punchy, accessible Op-Eds, commentaries, and policy briefs.

It means learning a new way to communicate. Instead of the classic IMRAD structure (introduction, methods, results, and discussion), we need to learn the inverted triangle: the big finding –> so what? –> the details.

Twitter: We’ve heard on this panel about the power of social media as a communications tool. I reluctantly joined Twitter in 2013, kicking and screaming, and I can genuinely say it’s become an absolutely indispensable way for our Center to engage the public. It’s remarkable who we’re talking with about our work, who’s retweeting or liking us, and who we’ve ended up collaborating with as a result of a Twitter conversation or even a vehement debate.

My sense is that it helps to tweet regularly, to add value (not just retweet), and to show a bit of personality. For me, that means sharing the occasional anecdote about our adorable 3 year old son. Honestly, my tweets about my kid get way more attention than anything I write about global health.

Your two best friends: I cannot stress this enough, your university communications team is your best friend. They can help you reach a mass audience, they can help you write Op-Eds, they can help you place them.

Your second best friend is the reliable, trusted reporter whose work you respect and who you stay in touch with. Build a relationship with her, let her know about your work. Then when your next study comes out, she’ll be more likely to write about it.

Number 3: How to communicate

Many of us have come to falsely believe that when we use complex, jargon-laden, pseudo-sciencey language in our writing or speech, then we sound clever. We don’t. Instead, nobody has a clue what we’re saying. So we have actually failed to communicate.

For public or policy engagement, we need to leave that poor communication style behind.

Use short, simple words. Instead of approximately, say about. Instead of utilization, say use. Make your sentences short.

Use the active tense, not the passive tense! Say “We did this study because of X” instead of “The study was done by us because of X.”

Have only 3 messages, no more—it’s hard for people to take more than 3 ideas on board.

For an Op-Ed, take readers through 3 stages: What’s the problem? What’s the solution? What next: how does this solution become action?

And finally, be passionate: you did this research because it inspired and excited you. Find that inspiration and add it to your voice.  Your enthusiasm for science will be contagious.

About the Author:

Gavin Yamey (tweets @GYamey) is Director of the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health, Duke Global Health Institute.