Social media rises to the challenge of health communication

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne

Health researchers should consider the creative use of social media – and in particular of new communication tools such as “edutainment” – as part of a comprehensive communication strategy because, like anything else, research findings need to be effectively marketed.

In the words of Kirsten Patrick, clinical reviews editor of the British Medical Journal, addressing a session of Forum 2012 devoted to the topic of science and social media, “it is our job not only to do the research, but to get it out there.”

Soul City: Showing how "edutainment" can communicate health messages (Credit: Soul City)

One example of how edutainment can be done successfully is demonstrated by Soul City in South Africa – or to give it its full title, the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication.

This uses an entertaining storyline in television drama to influence behaviour and practices relating to health, nutrition and sexuality.  Recent themes have included medical male circumcision and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Bongiwe Ndondo, monitoring and evaluation manager of Soul City, told the session that edutainment as a technique for transmitting social messages through entertainment had been practiced in traditional societies for centuries.

Soul City has brought the idea up-to-date by translating this concept into national television series, supported by 23 radio talk shows on seven community radio stations, printed material, internet-based social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and mobile applications, in particular Young Africa Live.

She explained that research is the cornerstone of the roadmap leading to the production of a new television series, which is always “based on an extensive and rigorous research process that ensures quality, relevance and effectiveness.”

Denis Jjuuko, a media and communication consultant from Uganda, argued that social media could stimulate discussions and fill gaps left by reports in traditional, mainstream media. This was especially important in countries with limited press freedom, or where mainstream media shy away from sensitive topics.

Jjuuko said that the rapid growth of mobile technology in Africa provided an important new distribution medium. “Social media has become mainstream, and can sometimes do what other media cannot do, especially in some parts of Africa, where mainstream media may, for example, be virtually closed when you deal with certain issues of sexuality.

“In such cases you can use mobile technology and social media such as blogs and video on YouTube to get your message across.”

ResearchAfrica managing editor Linda Nordling argued that social media “give you quite a lot of control, because you can respond and you do not rely on an intermediary such as a journalist as in the traditional media.”

She also said that social media were also “important in terms of ‘narrow casting’:  talking not only to many people, but the right people”.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, participants pointed to some of the difficulties that researchers have encountered with social media, and indeed with attempting to engage in the public communication of their research results.

These includes the dangers of being misquoted, ethics issues – particularly when sensitive clinical trials were involved –  fears around the improper use and interpretation of data, and the adverse effects of an indiscriminate dissemination process, especially when researchers were working on sensitive topics.

Speakers on the panel also included contributions by SciDev.Net editor David Dickson and Brenda Zulu, founder of Africa Interactive Media in Zambia.

Lia Labuschagne is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

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