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Research and public health

Article discussing how to inform and communicate with public health agencies
Picture of a person wearing a laboratory coat and a person weating a suit shaking hands
© COG-Train

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of positive interaction between public health agencies and academia, as well as industry, journalism, and even unconventional information sources (e.g. social networks).

Countries, where good relationships between academia and public health agencies existed, took quicker and more effective resolutions during the pandemic, whereas those with less auspicious relationships based their decisions on non-scientific, often politically led opinions. For example, in Latin America (one of the regions in the world that was most affected by COVID-19), Uruguay involved academics in the early-pandemic strategies, by integrating universities and research centres into diagnosis, surveillance, and treatment assessments. This allowed them to control quickly COVID-19 transmission, reaching outstanding low levels of infections and mortality in 2020. In the same region, Uruguay´s neighbours Brazil and Argentina (that used a political, non-academic based approach) counted the infections in millions and the mortality in hundreds of thousands.

Indirect communication

Academia has an important role in training the public health workers that will be part of the public health agencies and health ministries. Education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels should be continuous to provide state-of-the-art tools to public health authorities in order for them to make good decisions. This also means that communication between academia and health agencies continues indirectly through education.

Another major role of academia in public health is to conduct research (basic and applied) that can be useful for decision-making. Even though public health authorities are responsible for taking decisions, they should be built on systematically acquired results. This type of indirect communication between academia and government health agencies should be encouraged, as research evidence is the most powerful instrument to fully understand and try to solve a problem that affects the general population.

Finally, academia should engage with the community, to understand public health problems and effectively communicate science. However, one of the main challenges faced by researchers, and public health officials, during the current pandemic is effective communication with the public, so that the reasons behind public health policy is understood.

Direct communication

Communication between academia and ministries of health often develops from already existing contacts and relationships. It is vital that trustworthy communication is established prior to a public health emergency (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) as, without bidirectional interaction, important information may not be properly communicated. Trust is the base of any communication, and reliance depends on the interlocutors and their communication lines. For example, is more difficult to build effective communication channels in countries with weak public health institutions that change authorities repeatedly, compared with those with long-term strategies. Likewise, in countries with a weak academic culture it will be difficult for their public health agencies to find a continuous and reliable interlocutor.

Academics advise public health authorities and policymakers on up-to-date evidence and data interpretation, and, additionally, they can also offer personal opinions based on experience. However, authorities must recognize when they are getting one or the other. Information provided by academics must be transparent and free of conflicts of interest, and it also should be open to public scrutiny in terms of getting different expert opinions when it is considered necessary. Public health agencies also need to be open to receiving advice, especially during a public health emergency, as this will facilitate academic work such as research and education.

The last responsibility of academia is to give feedback (and criticism when necessary) on the decisions taken by public health agencies and ministries of health. Academia plays an important role in seeking evidence to determine if a decision was taken accurately or not. That was probably the most difficult task for researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic, as when criticised, some authorities ignored academics, blocked their research work, or even limited their free speech. It is undeniable that academia played an important role during the pandemic, however, most of its valuable work was diluted due to not interacting successfully with public health agencies.

© COG-Train
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