Also referred to as an infodemic, this experience is shared by all. If scientists find themselves drowning in the “growing torrent of new scientific papers” about the disease, where does it leave the public who have to navigate more scientific terms and data than ever before? At the same time, this health crisis has highlighted the important role we all play as individuals in public health, specifically, in slowing down the spread of the virus and of misinformation.
The information-related challenges we face are many. First, there is the information explosion. On March 11, 2020, the WHO called COVID-19 a global pandemic. On March 16, 2021, 108806 articles about the COVID-19 were indexed in LitCovid, a comprehensive literature hub from the National Library of Medicine. The number goes up daily. Moreover, the information explosion is happening on all levels – science, policy, practice, media outlets, and social media platforms.
Second, while researchers have quickly mobilized to study potential treatments, vaccines, virus spread, prevention, and illness-related impacts, the speed with which research has unfolded has understandably created some confusion. New research results emerge all the time and sometimes contradict previous findings, what Eysenbach describes as “facts are sparse and recommendations based on BETs (best evidence at the time) are subject to change”.
Finally, there is misinformation, growing and spreading rapidly alongside the virus. Together, these factors create a fertile ground for public confusion and an erosion of trust in our decision makers, and science in general. So, what can we do? Improve information literacy skills – and I don’t say this just because literacy promotion is a core professional value and research interest for me as a librarian and an information scientist. In the context of COVID-19, without a doubt, health literacy skills are key. Health literacy is typically defined as a set of skills that enable individuals to find, understand and use information to make decisions that will improve their health status. It is also recognized as a necessary condition to empower individuals and enable their engagement.
If we go one level deeper, trustworthy health information is based on scientific evidence. Therefore, in addition to health literacy skills, we should also focus on scientific or research literacy, specifically, improving public understanding of how research is conducted. As expressed by a patient partner I worked with – having a common language and a shared understanding is key. And we know that even simple terms can mean different things to researchers and the public.
To contribute to the public’s health and research skills, and ultimately to encourage their engagement with and trust in science and evidence-based information, we (researchers from the Department of Family Medicine at McGill University) launched two educational websites: Online Health Information Aid and Understanding Research. Both sites were co-developed with users, are available in English and French, and hopefully keep technical jargon to a minimum.
Online Health Information Aid provides tips and resources on how to search, evaluate, and use health information. Our goal is to help people be more critical about the information they find, feel better equipped to discuss it, and ultimately be more engaged in their own health. In response to the current spread of misinformation, we added a dedicated COVID-19 page focusing on the importance of spotting misinformation and the perils of sharing it.
Understanding Research introduces the public to basic research concepts and methods. Our goals are to facilitate public understanding of health research and work towards finding a common language among patients, decision makers, health professionals, and researchers. The platform consists of the website and a repository containing video tutorials and other resources. For example, we have videos explaining the difference between research types or providing tips on how to read a scientific article.
Finally, while improving public information literacy skills, it is also important to improve how information is communicated. Simply providing trustworthy scientific information does not translate into helping the public make informed decisions. Fortunately, many valuable resources exist, such as the E4D Science Communication webinars. As with developing a shared understanding and using a common language, communication is a shared responsibility in fighting misinformation. We, governments, social media platforms, media outlets, researchers, public libraries, and educational institutions, should work together towards improving our information and communication skills.