The modern world has been built on a simple premise, that science gives us the best lens for viewing and understanding reality.
Faith in that lens waxes and wanes, though, as Sabrina Sholts, Ph.D. at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History writes. Sholts cites Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World,” written during a moment in the 20th century when America was experiencing acute, collective fears about alien abduction.
The COVID-19 pandemic likewise has given many people an excuse to give into their fears and superstitions. Sholts argues that science’s role as a candle in the dark, as Sagan puts it, is necessary to enlighten.
As we will see, however, this is easier said than done.
Science communication isn’t perfectly suited to a fast-moving pandemic.
As health reporter Roberta Villa writes, science needs time so people can test emerging research, some of which is contradictory, and it must acknowledge its own uncertainties. Meanwhile, a pandemic requires quick, decisive action.
This can cause considerable friction. Villa notes how some platforms have tried to overcome this by publishing research before it’s thoroughly vetted, but this sometimes just muddies the water.
What’s more, the pandemic can spur novel research on its own as well as new collaborations among researchers, which add further dimensions to the challenge. Jeremy Farrar, head of the U.K.-based research charity Wellcome Trust, told Science magazine in February 2020 that “an unprecedented amount of knowledge has been generated” in the weeks immediately following COVID-19’s identification in Wuhan.
Back in February, much of that research still moved within industry channels — prepublish platforms, Slack channels, the outer edges of medical Twitter. Once the pandemic became the globe’s primary topic of conversation, however, that deluge of research found mainstream audiences.
“This is the first pandemic of its kind in the age of social media,” says K. Vish Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We have proved, as a system, singularly unprepared to handle this aspect.”
This, Viswanath says, is causing stress at a societal level, and the average person is struggling to make sense of all the scientific (and pseudoscientific) information they receive each day.
Fear and superstition tend to give way to science when it is presented clearly and accurately. Over time, a track record of clarity and accuracy invites people to put their trust in the research once more.
To do this, medical professionals must understand their audiences, understand where and how those audiences receive information, know how to provide the right context, and give people straightforward information, health writer Katherine J. Igoe says.
Here are four tips that will help researchers strike just the right balance.
In the face of information overload, an authoritative voice can cut through the noise, McCann Health Global CEO John Cahill says.
The key, however, is to wield that voice only when appropriate, such as when a drug in development reaches phase III in its trial.
Cahill notes, too, that multiple stakeholders and partners can lend their voices to a single message to make it ring out. “When there is something to say, say it loud and clear, and say it in partnership.”
In an April 2020 article for Health Affairs, Harris Allen, Ph.D., Brent Ling, and Wayne Burton, M.D. — respectively a healthcare consultant, the executive director at the Population Health Alliance, and an adjunct professor of environmental and occupational sciences at the University of Illinois School of Public Health — argue against the use of the term “social distancing.”
They say the term is problematic for two reasons. First, the connotation of “stay away from people” can make people averse to the procedure, and they will resist. Second, the term is so blunt that it ignores the very human need for socialization and our collective interdependence as a species.
Instead, they propose highlighting the need for physical distancing while underscoring the need for social connection. “The more our communities feel supported via social networks, the more likely we will all cooperate and maintain behavioral consistency with physical distancing requirements.”
It’s a subtle tweak to a term that has since gained wide usage, but this is a good example of how something is said can be just as important as what is said. By respecting everyone’s need for social connection, perhaps some communities would have embraced public-health measures a little more deeply.
Medical affairs teams have an important role to play in the education of the public, education of the media, and vigilance in the face of misinformation during a pandemic.
The demand for quick medical information rises during a pandemic, and having all hands on deck is crucial for pharmaceutical companies. In fact, Sarah Jarvis at PharmExec.com proposes bringing medical science liaisons in for on-call support when HCPs phone in with inquiries.
Further, Jarvis writes that this pandemic will force many companies to rethink how they organize their medical information departments. “Some organizations have centralized customer engagement roles-such as field medical and medical information teams-under the same leadership, but most don’t,” she writes.
“We believe that the COVID-19 worldwide response to telemedicine will be the catalyst that changes how many consumers approach education and information consumption for good. Medical teams that adapt with new ways of working will succeed. Whether this is with medical information and field medical teams working hand in hand or under the same leadership, it will be vital for these groups to change together to meet customer needs.”
Clear, accessible science isn’t simply a matter of dissemination. The way research is collected and analyzed is undergoing seismic changes as we speak, and that will likely impact our responses to whatever pandemic follows COVID-19.
As McKinsey researchers Gaurav Agrawal, Brandon Parry, Brindan Suresh, and Ann Westra point out, diverse methods of evidence generation could help define the next normal in clinical research.
“For example, supplementing controlled data with real-world evidence, using master protocols or adding arms to in-flight trials are all top of mind for R&D leaders and likely to figure prominently in discussions with regulators and in health-technology assessments,” they write. “None of these approaches are unheard of but could gain further momentum in the next normal.”
For medical affairs teams, such changes would have rippling effects. For one thing, new methods of data collection probably means training and upskilling.
“Everybody is familiar with the traditional capabilities of scientific knowledge, a good understanding of compliance, business acumen – those are a given,” says Charlotte Kremer, M.D., executive vice president and head of medical affairs at Astellas. “Medical affairs needs to get ready and gain capabilities in the new areas, either training ourselves or hiring the right data analysts.”
At the same time, an MA professional’s responsibilities could evolve alongside new needs for data collection and stakeholder engagement.
Viraj Deodatta Rajadhyaksha, international oncology medical director at AstraZeneca, points to the ways medical affairs engage patients and patient groups as one major change on the horizon:
“With a focus on operational excellence, Medical affairs teams can play an important role in co-creating an eco-system where patients provide support to each other and the community. Disease awareness, prevention, early diagnosis and referral, adherence to treatment, and overall well-being could fall in the scope of such patient groups.”
Taken together, all of these ideas — from understanding how to frame a solution to understanding how to co-create an ecosystem of patient advocates — underscore the importance of listening and empathy in science.
As COVID-19 has shown us all, research doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Millions (even billions) of people depend on the medical research that is happening right now. By being mindful of the human touch that’s required in moments such as these, medical science will be able to provide a candle in the dark the next time a global public health crisis rears its head.