While the evidence base on successful practices in knowledge exchange is growing rapidly, the COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented global challenges. During an online taster event for the upcoming Fuse international conference on knowledge exchange in public health, international experts shared their learning from the pandemic.
Perhaps the biggest challenge during the pandemic has been communication. Governments demanding quick access to the latest scientific evidence to inform their decision making in the fight against COVID-19; researchers dealing with a lack of data and uncertainty in interpreting emerging data on spread of the virus and risks to health; and both struggling with the spread of misinformation on social media and in other places of power.
In spite of these challenges, awareness of public health and research evidence has increased significantly during the pandemic. Some public health figures, such as England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have become household names (“next slide please“) and ‘R numbers’ are now common knowledge. We learned to be more flexible in funding, designing and conducting collaborative research, with gold-standards being replaced by ‘good enough’.
Maureen Dobbins from the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools within McMaster University in Canada, demonstrated how they were able to develop new synthesis methods and dissemination plans with local government to mobilise evidence for decision making within less than a month. For example, they conducted a rapid review on household food insecurity for the Public Health Agency of Canada with support from Public Health Advisor Leanne Idzerda. They dealt with uncertainty in these rapid reviews by grading the evidence by asking: ‘How likely are the findings to change with more evidence?’
As professionals, we learned to deal with the uncertainty of data by making better use of our personal connections. Roland Bal from the School of Health Policy and Management at Erasmus University in Rotterdam showed how Dutch clinicians mobilised their informal network of colleagues at the local, regional and national level to coordinate beds for COVID-19 patients across hospitals in the Netherlands and reduce uncertainty about available intensive care unit capacity. This resulted in a dedicated bus service for transporting patients between hospitals.
Existing monitoring and coordinating structures between hospitals no longer worked in the pandemic and were replaced with new informal ones, in which emotions and politics played a much larger part. Roland dubbed this the importance of ‘relational epistemology’ and also drew attention to the ‘dark side’ of these new coping strategies, where people outside these relational structures were seldom heard and the patient voice and experience not included.
However, researchers also developed new ways of engaging with their partners in research. For example, Jane Powers and Mandy Purington from the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University, USA engaged with youth workers and health care providers in their ACT for Youth project by transitioning to innovative remote and virtual formats, including game and role play, using avatars. Part of these formats is an acknowledgment of the emotional impact that the pandemic has on partners and therefore the need to create a space in these activities to check in on partner wellbeing. Perhaps their greatest innovation is the ‘cat scale’ which Heather Wynkoop Beach from the Bronfenbrenner Center introduced during the event – which cats represent you today?
Finally, policy makers, professionals and researchers have had to learn to deal with misinformation about COVID-19. Peter Lurie, President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington, D.C., USA showed that the actual amount of primary misinformation about COVID-19 is very small but can do plenty of damage, due to many people simply referring to it online. Of the 479,225 articles he found in his review on COVID-19 vaccines in a wide range of media outlets, only 3.7% contained misinformation, and of those only 3% contained what he called ‘primary misinformation’, with the vast majority of articles simply referring to a very small number of primary sources of misinformation. However, some of these articles were sent to more than 400 million subscribers, indicating that the reach of misinformation can be vast!
|C-WorKS: COVID-19 Consequences – Want it? or Know it? Share it!|
To counteract misinformation and lack of knowledge, Mia Moilanen, who works as an Analytical Programme Manager at Public Health England* in the UK, demonstrated an online knowledge sharing platform called C-WorKS, which was developed during the pandemic. On this platform, health professionals, service commissioners and academic researchers across North East England and Yorkshire share knowledge, expertise and resources on the non-COVID consequences of COVID-19 (e.g. delayed representation of other health conditions, mental health and increasing health inequalities). So far, over 700 members have shared more than 300 resources through C-WorKS.
What the pandemic has taught us more than anything, is the importance of collaboration: to work together to find solutions and that, during public health crises, we need to find new ways of connecting knowledge users, producers and brokers. This requires flexibility in roles, structures, research methods and funding arrangements, which will have a lasting impact on the future of knowledge exchange in public health. We hope to address the complex challenges faced during the pandemic, what we have learned about knowledge exchange, and how we can use this knowledge to improve research and practices in the future at the Fuse conference next year in June in Newcastle, UK. We can’t wait to see you there!
*Public Health England has been replaced by UK Health Security Agency and Office for Health Improvement and Disparities
This blog has been reproduced with permission from the Fuse Open Science Blog: http://fuseopenscienceblog.blogspot.com/2021/10/misinformation-data-uncertainty-and-cat.html