Thanks partially to my former professional life as a librarian, I have a bit soft spot for information literacy. And right now, information literacy is a very, very big deal. There’s a lot of health information out there, some of it good, a lot of it bad. If we’re going to argue over what study said what in relation to COVID-19, masks (or whatever other health topic is hot right now), it’s worth understanding HOW health research gets translated from the language of researchers into something the public can use.
In this interview, we’re going to hear from an expert in health translation, Lauren Albrecht, PhD in Educational Psychology and Knowledge Translation. You’ll learn how the results of research become available to the public, what needs to happen to make it accessible and understandable to us average humans, and how to cast a suitably critical eye on the morass of health information out there so we can figure out what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s just ugly.
PLEASE NOTE: This interview was originally recorded back in February 2019, but I felt it especially important to release it now to help everyone navigate the complicated waters of COVID-19 related info. Since recording the interview, Lauren Albrecht successfully defended her thesis and completed her studies, and is now a fully fledged PhD. Congrats, Lauren!
Embedded video being fussy? Click here to watch it on YouTube. You can also read the full interview transcript below.
How have you been keeping your health information straight with all the dubious info swirling around during COVID-19? Click here to share in the YouTube comments section. And be sure to like the video and subscribe to my YouTube channel!
Visit Lauren Albrecht online at https://www.laurenalbrecht.ca/
Lauren Sergy: Lauren Albrecht, welcome to this humble little show where we’re trying to help people be better communicators in different aspects of work and of course within life. An area that’s been in my frame of reference, and I’m sure in many other people’s frame of reference right now, is health communication. You know we are hearing about all of this health stuff that comes out online on a regular basis, like hearing about measles outbreaks all over the US! Communication is sometimes related to that. Now you have a really specialized area in terms of health communication known as knowledge translaion- can you tell us what that is?
Lauren Albrecht: Field of knowledge translation is known by a lot of different terms around the world. Some people call it translation and exchange; some people call it implementation science; some people say knowledge mobilization. In Canada, we use the term knowledge translation and the simplest definition is really the art and science of bridging the gap between what we know from research evidence and what’s actually happening in the world.
Sergy: Excellent. I like that you refer to it as an art! Can you can you tell us the art side because everyone thinks of the science stuff right – “tell me what the research says, tell me what the data is” – what’s the art aspect of it?
Albrecht: So really people have been doing all these translations forever. As science has developed and health disciplines have developed their own ways of treatment and approaching patients, people have been doing knowledge translation work just intuitively. What has been happening to catch up what is the development of the science. I don’t want to, because it’s an emerging field, just focus on the science piece. There is a lot of importance to recognize the work that people have been doing intuitively seeing that there’s a gap between what works in practice and what people have been doing versus out of the research evidence as it emerges.
Sergy: Can you tell me a little bit about what you pulled out in terms of that gap and how your work might fill it?
Albrecht: I think the best way of explaining this is thinking about how much research evidence has exploded in the last 30 years. I mean modern medicine is still pretty young- it’s still a hundred fifty years old and we’re still learning a lot about the human body and about how to treat disease. We have tackled how to treat acute illness really well.
We solved a lot of the big problems, but we haven’t been able to solve is things like chronic disease because they are really complicated. So what we know as evidence is accumulated and more and more data is published every day, is that there is about a 30-year lag between when something is noticed in the research evidence as a best practice or treatment and when it actually is consistently implemented as a front-line treatment.
Sergy: Wow it’s that long! I did not think it would be 30 years. Especially with the miracle of the internet right? Like can’t we all just put this stuff out there right away and then it magically happens.
Albrecht: Yeah and part of it is the internet’s young as well and ways of training clinicians and scientists have to evolve to incorporate the internet. But then once you get onto the internet the volume of data is massive, it is overwhelming. So then we have a whole set of skills we have to teach people around how to find the data we need, how to evaluate its qualities, how to apply it in different contexts. So there is a lot of complexity that kind of accounts for this 30-year lag.
So what the field of knowledge translation is trying to do is shorten that gap so that it’s in a reasonable time frame. As you can imagine in 30 years that data is out of date again. So when you put it into practice it is out of date.
Sergy: Excellent. So thinking of that shrinking down the time frame in which it takes us to bring all of this research into public awareness and regular practice, this is a huge communication deal and complicating it, I imagine, would be all of the misinformation that’s being circulated out there. It’s easy to make things that are not grounded in evidence or that any semblance of reality seem very valid. So in terms of public health impact and communicating to lay people what are you – aside from just the shortening time frame – do you need to achieve to make this information not just accessible but also palatable to people like myself.
Albrecht: Great question- I mean it’s a really complicated question. So this field has kind of developed a stream to look at knowledge translation to help consumers so basically people making decisions about their own health or their family’s health, where I’ve been focusing my attention. It’s really new, we don’t have a lot of hard data about how to do this but I think you made a great point that we can draw from many different fields! We can draw from communication, we can draw from education, we can draw from various health disciplines that are really focused on dealing with people. So I think this is happening but it is really new and we learning as we go.
So one of the areas I’m really interested in is how can we maximize the people trustworthy information so when they have a sick child and are Googling for like what are these symptoms, are they serious, do I need to see a doctor. How do we get them the information they need right in that moment because it’s about the only good information. How do you optimize that? So I think we need to draw in the expertise of computer scientists and scientists and writers and artists.
Sergy: In terms of making information appealing to the public, are there any particular roadblocks that you find the health translation field is running into?
Albrecht: When you know the research data it is easy to assume everybody understands the research data and so we often have a block of how do we write this in a way that’s meaningful to someone that doesn’t have the health training background or who don’t necessarily care about all the statistics. They just do I need to know “do I go to the hospital” or “what can I do at home to manage and hopefully I don’t have to miss work tomorrow”.
Sergy: So as information consumers how can we as the public more successfully engage with information with health research? Like should we even be looking up the stuff on our own? Let’s start with the real basics: should we even be going to Google?
Albrecht: Yes and no! It’s difficult because research and being able to understand to consume research and to make decisions from it is a very specialized skill. It takes a lot of training on how to read a scientific paper and an understand the data that they’re presenting and the conclusions they’re going to. So there is a certain level of expertise you need to be able to have to do that in a useful way that is actually time effective.
I think it’s it is incumbent on health professionals and scientists to make the information that is available easy to understand, easy to access, easy to make decisions from. There is a responsibility but I mean you find all sorts of things on Google. That is why we have this anti-vaccinations movement. Unless you know how to evaluate whether it’s useful or not, It’s a massive challenge. I think there’s lots around Google thinking about optimizing their searches in different ways and Facebook doing the same thing.
That responsibility lies in lots of different places but we would be silly to tell people not to use Google because they are going to use it.
Sergy: Oh yeah like I’ve gone down the “what is this strange blemish on my skin” to “oh God I’m going to die in 2 weeks” often enough and I come from and Information and Library Sciences background. I know a logically most of us know that this is not a good information behavior and it’s so easy to get sucked in.
Are there any sort of markers that that the average person out there could use in terms of saying “yes this is a trustworthy source” or “okay maybe I shouldn’t look at that so much”. Are there any kind of tells?
Albrecht: The first one is to actually look at where the information is coming from and who is paying for it. It’s so important I think to look at information sources that are reliable so Alberta Health Services for example or other organizations that you’re aware of that do work that are publicly funded or by a research body rather than special interest groups or drug companies that have their own special interests with the information that they provide.
But sometimes that’s not easy to tell right off the bat. It’s just important to go into these types of information searches with healthy skepticism and ask questions about the research you’re reading. I know that storytelling as an anecdote is really powerful and so those things are going to draw people in. Those are the techniques that that everybody wants to use for their information whether it’s just reliable or not.
I think it’s just good to make sure that you’re asking questions like how does this fit with who’s paying for it, what are the potential biases behind it, how does this fit with what I know about this health condition or the whole system we are living in. Just double-checking everything.
Sergy: From a higher level perspective- so for clinicians, practicing doctors, people who are in the health field industry – it’s impossible to demand that every doctor is up-to-date on absolutely every bit of research coming out because it’s just too much for them! They are human beings too! I often feel that our expectations as people who use the health system are pretty heavy in terms of what the doctors themselves can handle. How does the knowledge translation come into play in terms of the practicing clinician? How much should they or do they rely on you basically?
Albrecht: First thing is there are a lot of systems in place now to help doctors and so they don’t have to have all this information in their head. I think the first thing patients should be aware of is do not be offended or question your doctor if they need to actually go to their computer and look up what exactly your symptoms are. These are the tools that are helping them hold all this information in place. They just want to be sure that they’re presenting you with a picture of the most accurate data. I think that’s one thing.
Patients can often feel somewhat offended be there if their doctor isn’t it an expert if they can’t fire off information. Like you said there’s just there’s just so much volume and it’s changing really rapidly. So there are tools doctors use that are more sophisticated than Google but look like Google, to help them keep a hold of all the information they need to be an effective practitioner.
In terms of what knowledge translation scientist do, it is synthesizing research evidence. Physicians and other clinicians should not be making decisions based on one research study. They should be taking a number of research studies and synthesizing together across contexts. geographies, countries and looking at a picture of that illness or that treatment at a much higher level. Translation science is synthesizing that data so that we can get a bigger picture rather than just relying on one study from one place. Then what we need to do with that information is effectively communicate that in one page summaries They have a quick reference guide or a bird’s-eye view of the scenario.
Sergy: Right right so you come become kind of the intermediary with you going through it saying “this is good stuff. Here’s the stuff you need, so that you don’t need to spend all of your time looking into it exactly.”
Albrecht: And where the data is not good, there’s many areas that are under studied and underfunded because they’re not priorities at the moment. We need to tell them that we need to say “this is the data and the quality that exists which should affect your decision”. We are not telling practitioners what you do we are just giving them the information so they can use that with their professional judgment.
Sergy: Just to change track slightly, you are a self acclaimed nerd, I consider myself in the same camp as well. Where do you see an intersection with nerd culture – not just super super cerebral stuff, but the fun stuff too – do those intersections between nerd culture and the research and knowledge translation, how do they blend?
Albrecht: I think it is a really natural fit. I think what the reason I was attracted to know the translation is very similar to the reason I love doing the Nerd Night Edmonton and going down various rabbit holes to see what is the evidence actually says what can we do with the evidence. It’s about healthy skepticism and is about challenging the norm and seeing if there are new ways of doing things. I think it is a very natural fit.
Sergy: I’m glad you mentioned Nerd Night! We’re going to bring it up for all of you out if there is probably a nerd night in or near you area. They are all over North America and Europe too so check it out, I’ll put the link down below.
For sure it’s a very very good time you can learn a lot of stuff. If you look at events like Nerd Night – which again to give the audience some context, there is a speech for 10 minutes and after there are some Q and As. A lot of opportunity for really gleeful exchange of very high-level information in an accessible and an interesting way by people who are passionate about their topics and who want to share them with anyone who’s interested.
So you are a Nerd Night boss here in Edmonton and I’m wondering from your perspective to what degree are people who are involved in these kinds of events or who have platforms online, like they maybe they are moderators of forums or have an online community or have a really influential blog or something like that, to what degree should they be involved in the dissemination or the policing the information that’s being shared through their events or through their forms or through their platforms. What responsibility to do those who actually disseminate information have?
Albrecht: Good question. I do think we do have responsibilities that is just like when you’re publishing a paper that you’re putting out your information for people to use in ways that are meaningful to them.
So I do think I do think people who run these events have to think about that and have to wrestle with that challenge. I think the way you can do it in a way we try to approach it at Nerd Night is to work with speakers beforehand, so it’s not just a matter of saying “I want to speak” and then we put you up on stage to talk about what you want to talk about. What are your messages and how can we take out the most meaningful in 20 minutes?
Also to just make sure that people aren’t pushing their own agenda. This might be in conflict with open-mindedness, inclusivity and research-based focus we want to promote. I think we can run into challenges with certain people who are maybe in politics. We can also run into challenges when it comes to businesses. We’re just trying to be really honest about that and that people so that when they’re up on stage they’re aware of those nuances and are providing a meaningful message.
Sergy: It’s a big task and a pretty big responsibility. How do you personally keep any of your own existing biases out of those decisions? How do you try to minimize it so that you know that you’re coming at this from an objective angle yourself, because we all have our beliefs or ideologies and biases- how do you pull yourself out of that and look at things objectively
Albrecht: That’s tough. I think I’m one of those scientists that don’t really believe in completely bias free and I think it’s because I come from a research background. The world is full of biases, people are full of biases, and it’s totally impossible to keep that bias-free. I think the key to that is to acknowledge your bias, to work with your team that you trust and accept feedback – especially from the audience or the stakeholders in your work.
Keep it an open and reflexive conversation! That way you don’t eliminate bias but you make bias topic of conversation and it will shift and grow as your work or as your event grows. So yeah it’s just about being aware of it, and keeping it front of minds, and challenging yourself in your decisions, and asking questions.
Sergy: Acknowledging that it is there I think is one of these is one of the biggest ways to overcome the problems that can be created from bias. Like you said it’s impossible to do anything without some kind of bias or context coloring the way that you look at the information that’s in front of you. So if you say “okay I know that I’m probably going to be affected by this” then the threat of It kind of goes down a little bit.
If you were to give some words of wisdom to all of us out there trying to navigate the glut of information we have in terms of health and in terms of Wellness that’s out there. What would be the top piece of advice that you would have for people who are wanting to find high quality health information and who also really want to understand what they’re seeing and what they’re reading?
Albrecht: I think the first thing is to trust your expertise but also trust where you’re not an expert and acknowledge where you’re not an expert. You can approach a question you have knowing where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are. So for example, you come from an library information background. You may be great at finding information but maybe it’s on a topic that you’re not familiar with, so you know you are strong at finding information so maybe you need to pull an expertise on evaluating the information to make sure that it’s what you need to make a decision with.
The second thing is to think about who you trust. Do you trust your doctor? Or a certain organization and the information they put forward? Make a list of go to sources.
I think the other thing is ask questions! Don’t feel shy. There is a lot of information out there and it’s really hard to know what it means or what to do with it or how it fits into the larger body of research. Asking questions is the way that you figure that out and the way that you can build the expertise around you so you know the next time you have a question.
I can’t give you a concrete list of “you should do these five things”. It is all about reflexion and kind of knowing what you know what you don’t know and where you can go to fill those gaps right.
Sergy: That’s a solid- that’s a really really solid piece of advice! Especially the notion of coming up with with the list of who you trust but also asking those questions of “okay why do I think this way? What’s informing this decision?” then you can figure out maybe where your trust is being pulled in different directions. It’s a big engagement with your information piece asking “why why why” all the time.
I am so appreciative of you coming on and telling us about about this whole world. I don’t know many people who have ever heard of knowledge translation but it really does affect our ability to communicate and engage with health information. With all of the misinformation that’s out there I think this is a a critical area of scholarly engagement that the average person should at least know exists. Because maybe then we’re a little more understanding of why things take time, of why evidence isn’t necessarily 100% certain the minute that it hits the ground.
Maybe we shouldn’t trust that that thing we saw on Facebook- I mean that’s an easy example that’s like shooting fish in a barrel- but I am really appreciative of you coming on and sharing a little piece of your world with the audience out here.
So if we want to know more about this, the million-dollar question, where can we find more of you and your work like nerd related, research related, where can we engage with you?
Albrecht: You can check out my website LaurenAlbrecht.ca, you can check out Nerd Nite Edmonton at Edmonton.NerdNite.com, and if you Google Knowledge translation there’s quite a number of knowledge translation organizations that will give you a really good sense of who is doing this work.
The University of Alberta has very robust research in this area but so do a number of institutions across the country and we are working on solutions for these big problems that are complicated. But if you ever find a research study looking for participants to help us in this endeavor, sign up because that is how we advance the science we need the participation of health consumers and professionals. We need to get the data of whom, contexts, and why.
Sergy: All of us out there like me, where we don’t know anything about this world, we can help out by sending our own information there as well.
So on that note let’s wrap it up! Thank you so much for being here Lauren! Of course for everyone out there who is watching if you would like more great interviews on different areas of communication that affect our work and that affect our life, makes sure that you click subscribe on this channel. Hit that notification bell and head over to LaurenSergy.com to sign up for the letters. You don’t miss any future interviews or other goodies that I will send your way.
Again, Lauren, thank you for being here with us. To all of you who have been watching: thank you so much for joining us today and I look forward to seeing you on the next Talk Shop interviews. Bye-bye