How do we communicate effectively? Exploring new models of engagement

October 2014
Shakira Choonara

Conferences have always been an important place to learn about and to share new research, often through oral or poster presentations. However, these methods of research communication do not allow for engagement with stakeholders. At the Third Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Cape Town, researchers from RESYST used a different approach to discuss and debate our governance themed research, which focused on audience engagement and participation.

Communication is a key part of the research process and is necessary to ensure that important findings and new evidence are made available. As a health systems researcher, conferences are an important place to learn about and to share new research, often through oral or poster presentations. However, these ‘traditional’ methods of research communication do not allow for engagement with stakeholders and the broader research community, and as a presenter, it is difficult to assess the audience’s understanding of the research or how it might lead to change.

But practices and conferences are changing, and at the Third Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Cape Town, researchers from the RESYST Consortium used a new approach to communicating research that focused on audience engagement and participation. The session, called a ‘fishbowl session’, consisted of participants taking turns to join in a discussion set out in the shape of a fishbowl, allowing others to watch and then contribute to the discussion to share their experiences or knowledge.

The topic of the session was the micro-processes and practices of governance and accountability across the health system. There were three discussions focusing on Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. Delegates were enthusiastic to contribute to the discussion around the impact of decentralisation and its impact on the structures, chaos and power struggles in Kenya. Other discussions included facility health committees in Nigeria and a vibrant discussion around the role of researchers in action learning sites – the approach being used by RESYST researchers to conduct the research alongside health managers.

In the South African discussion, a district health manager shared her experiences of managing healthcare workers, allowing the audience to grapple with actual difficulties faced by district management and provided invaluable insight into performance management issues. Her inputs into the fishbowl session highlighted the importance of frontline workers in achieving good governance in the health system.

Presenting research findings in an interactive manner certainly contributed to a robust discussion and insight into contexts beyond the RESYST learning sites. In comparison to traditional forms of presentations, the fishbowl discussion provided a space for exciting interaction and exchange of ideas, making it easier to absorb and grapple with research findings.

Perhaps it is time to question the format of oral and poster presentations, the type of information communicated and the minimal engagement associated with such presentations. Building on the momentum of the 2014 Global Health Symposium, we should find more ways to involve our research participants in discussions and continue to develop ways of sharing research that foster discussions and shared understandings between researchers and practitioners. This will certainly yield better communication and undoubtedly contribute to strengthening health systems. 

Shakira Choonara is a RESYST research intern, based at the Centre for Health Policy in South Africa. She is involved in the RESYST research project that aims to understand the micro-practices of accountability and governance in health systems. 

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