ANU-led global consortium on communication in healthcare takes aim at COVID-19

Photo: Shutterstock.
Friday 25 September 2020

By Evana Ho

A new ANU-led initiative comprising research centres from the world’s top universities will translate cutting-edge research on communication to deliver better outcomes for patients around the world, including those affected by COVID-19.

The International Consortium for Communication in Health Care has as its foundation members University College London, the University of Hong Kong, Nanyang Technological University, Lancaster University, and the Queensland University of Technology, led by the Australian National University. Harvard University is also set to join the consortium by the end of the year. 

Professor Diana Slade, Director of the ANU Institute for Communication in Health Care, views the establishment of the consortium as an exciting development for healthcare communication research globally. 

“I believe that working together across borders and disciplines will give us the unity and strength to realise our collective vision of creating a future in which healthcare is safe, compassionate, sensitive, and supportive for patients, carers and clinicians,” Professor Slade says.

As part of the consortium’s launch, eight of its global representatives, including Professor Slade, participated in a public webinar addressing communication in healthcare in the time of COVID-19. In addition to discussing some of the major issues that have arisen related to public health communication and communication in healthcare interactions, consortium representatives will discussed the research they have been conducting that addresses some of these COVID-19 issues.

For instance, Professor May O. Lwin, Associate Dean (Special Projects) of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University, and her team have been investigating misinformation around, and communication about, COVID-19. 

“We launched an investigation from January into how the mainstream media and social media have played a role in contributing to public preparedness versus paranoia during infectious disease outbreaks, particularly from the perspective of health messaging and communication,” says Professor Lwin.  

Her team analysed over 30 million English-language tweets that talked about COVID-19. They observed that while fear was the dominant emotion expressed in the tweets, since April that fear has been gradually replaced by anger.

“If such overbearing public emotions are not addressed through clear and decisive communication by authorities, citizen groups and social media stakeholders, there is potential for the emergence of issues such as breeding mistrust in the handling of the disease, and a belief in online falsehoods that could hinder the ongoing control of the disease,” Professor Lwin says. 

Another consortium representative Dr Stuart Ekberg, Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology & Counselling, Queensland University of Technology, recently published a paper on communicating with patients and their families during a pandemic. He and his team looked at whether and how communication in paediatric palliative care changes during a pandemic.

“Both clinicians and parents, almost equally, initiated talk about the pandemic throughout the appointments,” Dr Ekberg says. “We found that pandemic topics were also raised when discussing psychosocial or lifestyle issues, such as remote school learning or even television programs.”

During their study, which involved recording actual paediatric palliative care conversations, they encountered a family that was hesitant to take their child to hospital despite the child experiencing breathing problems. The family was more concerned about the risk of the child being exposed to COVID-19 at the hospital.

“Our study highlights that clinicians should expect and be prepared for the pervasiveness of talk about the COVID-19 pandemic within standard clinical practice,” says Dr Ekberg. “This awareness will enable clinicians to flexibly address needs and concerns about pandemic-related matters that may impact health and wellbeing.”

The consortium’s Hong Kong University representative, Dr Olya Zayts, who is the Director of the Research and Impact Initiative on Communication in Healthcare there, is examining the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of young adults and women in the workforce, focusing on 2020 and 2021 university graduates. Their ambition is to build a “Digital Workplace Transitions Hub” to reduce the mental health burden on young adults of transitioning to workplaces.

Similarly, Dr Elizabeth A. Rider, a paediatrician with Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, is investigating the effects of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents.

Professor Elena Semino, Director of the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University and Dr Zsófia Demjén,  Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics, University College London are set to study the ways in which vaccinations are talked about by people who are anti-, pro-, and undecided about vaccinations. Those findings will be fed into future public health campaigns. 

The public webinar Communication in Health Care and the impact of COVID-19 ran on Wednesday, 23 September. 

Watch now: 


Introducing the International Consortium for Communication in Healthcare

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Updated:  25 September 2020/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications