Medical researchers in Tanzania have not been fully exploiting the abundant opportunities that are available on the ubiquitous internet and mainstream media in serving the general public.
Tertiary level hospitals such as the Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute (JKCI) and the Muhimbili Orthopaedic Institute (MOI) at the Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH) in Dar es Salaam would not have become as popular as they are today for the procedures they carry out, and the new services they introduce, if it were not for their close engagement with the media and use of the internet.
When such services are widely publicised, society gets stimulated into seeking them. The corollary to this is that if little or nothing was told of their success stories or innovations, a sense of apathy towards the facilities would set in among the public.
It’s generally understood that such medical institutions do have in-house public relations (PR) units staffed by people who are paid to promote the facilities.
But, then comes a situation where individual researchers –whether attached, or not attached, to specific medical research organizations – publish studies in highfalutin medical journals without explaining them to the public in simple language. The information that is thus locked up in the studies would make more sense if it were ‘digested’ for easier assimilation by the wider public, rather than being limited for consumption only by highbrow professionals.
Unfortunately, all this is happening at a time when there are many communication opportunities, such as social media outlets, blogs and video publishing via the likes of YouTube that could be used by the researchers to raise the profile of their studies. Doing this in simple language would make their research findings more readily accessible to the public.
Some 14 years ago, a study by the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) titled ‘Bridging the gap between mass media journalists and health research scientists in Tanzania’ found that there is a huge gap between health researchers and journalists.
Although the study was published almost a decade-and-a-half ago, its message still lives. “[…] only a small portion of such [health] information has found its way to the Tanzanian audience. This has been very much attributed to the lack of proper mechanism to synthesise and disseminate scientific information to the majority of the population,’’ the NIMR study published in the Tanzania Health Research Bulletin in 2005 reads in part.
Today – several years after the study was published – technology has advanced tremendously, enabling researchers to easily connect with journalists in particular, and media outlets in general.
Alternatively, they could even take it upon themselves to communicate via cross-sharing platforms, a practice that has also remained minimal. Medical scientists cannot avoid the media organs. But, most of the scientists I have spoken to believe that the media is characterized by scandals and similarly negative news and, as such, they tend avoid associating with the media for fear of being misquoted, badly quoted or quoted out of context.
The truth is that there is need for medical researchers to familiarize themselves with journalists. There are scenarios where medical scientists will be accosted by media practitioners. This can’t be avoided -- especially considering that medics don’t have to be involved in malpractice to be approached by the media.
There are common or garden issues which journalists may want to be enlightened upon by medics as a matter of course – such as high-profile court cases and inquests, police inquiries, celebrity health issues, and cutting edge medicine.
There is a caution here, though. Use of internet and blogging has given the public a louder voice. This means that, in case the story has turned against the medical scientist, the results can be devastating. But, this shouldn’t be the reason for a medical scientist to keep the media at arm’s length.
So, what should you do as a medical researcher, when you are confronted by a journalist? Due to lack of space here, this will be explained in the next Monday edition of The Citizen.