I recently had the pleasure of attending the 42nd annual Canadian Association of Gerontology conference. A number of topics were discussed in relation to older adults, such as improving care for individuals with dementia, making our healthcare system more age-friendly, and changing the environment to better accommodate our aging population. However, one unexpected topic that struck me was how researchers need to do a better job of using technology to deliver our findings to the people who can benefit from them.
One of the keynote speakers, Paula Span, personified the role technology can play in communicating a message. Despite being a writer for the New York Times and an instructor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, what Ms. Span might be best known for is “The New Old Age Blog.” With a Facebook page, website, and thousands of Twitter followers, Ms. Span is one of an increasing number of professionals who are using technology to spread their work. And while these tools may seem obvious to a journalist, the point of Ms. Span’s talk was that health care professionals need to adopt these technologies to keep people informed.
Some health care professionals have already started using technology to engage a wider audience. GeriPal, a blog put together by 3 medical residents at the University of California, San Francisco, has close to 1 400 000 views and allows people of all levels of education and experiences to share information and stories about aging and medicine. Dr. Brian Goldman is an Emergency Room physician that explores controversial issues within the medical community on the CBC Radio podcast “White Coat, Black Art”. Other notable health care professionals who use technology as a way to get people talking about health issues include obesity researchers Dr. Arya Sharma and Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, both of whom offer their take on the latest news and treatments in the world of obesity (links at the end of the post).
These initiatives are not alone. There has recently been a big push in the research community to expand on knowledge dissemination. Knowledge dissemination (along with the terms knowledge synthesis, exchange, and application) is part of the broader idea of knowledge translation (or “KT”), which aims to ‘translate’ research results so they are easier to understand and use, and circulate this information to non-academic communities. This line of thinking may be related to the delay between a medical discovery and it’s clinical application; some studies estimate that it can be anywhere from 5 to 20 years before new and improved techniques actually become the norm. Now, researchers are heavily encouraged to think about how they will actually use their findings, including who they plan on telling. This forces researchers to do some legwork in getting their findings out to people who can use them, instead of results being buried in dusty journals or heard only by fellow researchers at conferences.
Knowledge dissemination initiatives can take many forms: publishing research results in community newsletters, newspapers and press releases, passing information on to community health organizations, hosting public workshops and debates, or taking information online and blogging about it (much like this blog!) In the end, the point is to take research results further than ever before and start a conversation with as many people as possible. In this way, outlets like blogs and social media take research out of the hands of researchers and provide health care professionals and the public with knowledge that was once only accessible to individuals who had a PhD after their name.
So what does this mean to people who aren’t producing research? For starters, both health care professionals and the average person have improved access to the latest research, which is increasingly being produced in a form that most can understand. This also means that the average person can start asking for information they can actually understand. More and more institutions (universities, hospitals, government agencies) not only have Facebook pages, websites, and Twitter feeds, but they may also employ people who are skilled at getting information out in a format and level of expertise that most people can understand. And if, as a researcher, you are interested in using technology for this purpose, the time has never been better; many institutions are beginning to offer workshops on ‘clear writing’ and how to tailor forms of social media to meet your goals.
As the public increases their demand for accessible, understandable research findings, researchers are encouraged to make their findings easy to access and understand – and technologies like blogs and social media might just be their best bet. More people learning is always a good thing, so let’s work on getting the word out, and start a conversation that includes as many people as possible.
The New Old Age Blog http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/
White Coat, Black Art http://www.cbc.ca/whitecoat/
Dr. Arya Sharma http://www.drsharma.ca/
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff: http://www.weightymatters.ca/
Knowledge Translation: http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/39033.html
Logan Lawrence is currently completing his Masters of Science in Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, where he is researching physical activity in cancer survivors. His interests include knowledge translation, clear language, and health promotion in older adults.