Collaboration with African researchers explores ways to communicate health information to families

Case study
Talking about
Designing new methods of communicating health information

Professor Lisa-Dionne Morris (School of Mechanical Engineering) is working with African institutions and African researchers in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa to design new methods of communicating health information that takes into account the needs of mother and child patients, and healthcare systems, products and services involving African stakeholders.

The aim is to better communicate important person-centred health information to rural and vulnerable communities during future health crises, such as a pandemic. The project aligns with the World Health Organisation’s Health Security Framework and was established with a grant from the University’s Sustainable Development Fund. 

Lisa-Dionne says: “Working with our local partners, we’ve been scoping the existing research landscape, identifying the research agenda, and designing the tools to make it happen.”

The Horizons Institute has provided financial and structural support for the research project, and Lisa-Dionne believes its support has been essential.

“Their approach is forward-thinking. They are open to suggestions of doing research differently, focusing on mutual benefits between partners, and don’t see the innovation space as automatically problematic. If it’s scientifically interesting, that’s enough – there’s no need to hit certain targets or produce set outcomes without establishing in this case, the Africa Health Security agenda first.”

Variety of disciplines

Consortium partners include Kenyan and South African institutions. In South Africa, these are the University of South Africa; the University of Stellenbosch; Cape Peninsula the University of Technology; and the country’s National Department of Health. In Kenya, the partners are Strathmore University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. In Nigeria, researchers are representatives from the country’s National Department of Health. A huge variety of disciplines are involved, including digital transformation, information technology, public health, engineering, nutrition sciences and design.

Each country partner has a particular action focus: for the UK, it’s to explore the best information and information technology used in Global Health Security programmes; for South Africa, to build equitable access to health information and services in the public sector; and for Kenya, to develop an information and communication technology framework. The partners meet virtually every week for two hours. 

The project started in January 2022. By interviewing African people about their health – in particular, their health information – the researchers have been building up knowledge of how this can be used more efficiently in future. 

For example, African Health Security stakeholders and African Health information users have been asked about how they access health information; in what languages; how it’s translated, and how they pass it on to others; as well as how they interact with technology and emerging technology (Industry 4.0). Researchers have also been finding out what cultural beliefs are at play, as well as how nutrition information is obtained. 

Lisa-Dionne says: “It’s important that we conduct research and gather data in a way that is responsive to the country’s cultural practices. For example, we needed to interview mothers about their health and that of their children, so I imagined a person-to-person interview. But our partners were aware of the different cultural behaviours in different provinces.  In some communities, if a woman goes outside a village to participate in research, she will be chaperoned by her husband or an elder of the village. These traditions are respected. We’ve now designed stakeholder engagement workshops that have different questions for the different participants, but keep them together.”

A New Africa Health Security Framework

The consortium partners have now devised a new health framework identifying 13 key factors, including infrastructure, digital literacy, secondary health care, language, health benefits, social protection and nutrition. While fieldwork will start in 2023, the research has already provoked interest from stakeholders within the countries involved, resulting in additional project directions. 

South Africa’s Minister for Health and Wellness of the Western Cape recently visited Strathmore University in Kenya to find out more about the work and had a request for a future research project. Lisa-Dionne says: “She asked us to consider what impact climate change is having on a hospital for pregnant women, from the mothers’ perspective. So that will involve looking at higher temperatures, an increase in humidity and a lack of water, and how that impacts on the birth process.”

The African university partners will be conducting the research themselves by going into the field in 2023, using the tools that have been co-designed with Professor Morris and her team. Research papers have already been published, but Lisa-Dionne says that’s not the most important result. 

“From my perspective what’s important is that we now have a growing body of African researchers who are engaging with this inclusive type of outreach. We’re calling it ‘departure trans-disciplinary research’ as we have persons of different disciplines engaging in the communities, all engaging with and consolidating their positions in African healthcare research. It’s hugely satisfying and rewarding to be a part of this project.”