Communication key to addressing global health challenges

One public health professor’s quest to improve global public health through culturally appropriate interventions and communication
July 9, 2018

Growing up in a village in Ghana, Bernard Appiah, DrPH, assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health and the director of the school’s Research Program on Public and International Engagement for Health, experienced firsthand how important culturally appropriate communication can be.

“I remember well the day boreholes [a well drilled to obtain water] fitted with hand pumps were constructed in my village to provide safe drinking water, but no effort was made to communicate this to us,” Appiah said. “As a result, we discovered the water from the pumps made soap foam better than water from the river, so we used the water pumps for washing! Scientists just expected us to know to stop drinking from the polluted river without communicating that the water pumps provided a safer alternative.”

This experience, and others like it, developed in Appiah a passion to research methods of health information dissemination that are culturally appropriate for African countries. He began this journey almost 20 years ago when he was a drug information pharmacist at Ghana’s National Drug Information Resource Center. Shortly afterward, Appiah co-founded the Center for Science and Health Communication to provide a forum for journalists and health researchers to promote the translation of health-related research findings to the people in their countries.

Since then, Appiah has been involved in dozens of research projects and public health interventions throughout his home continent. The third edition of a book Appiah wrote, Medicines: Using Them Safely, is currently in press. The book uses a storytelling approach to help consumers in developing countries become knowledgeable in the correct use of medicines.

“Although in the United States, a book with medicines that ‘speak’ may not attract adult readers, in developing regions such as Africa, adult readers like this concept because storytelling is a huge part of their culture,” Appiah said.

He is currently researching the use of cellphone caller tunes to promote blood donations, which are in short supply in Africa. Caller tunes operate with a logic reverse to that of ring tones. Whereas a ring tone is the sound the called individual hears, a caller tune is the message a person making a call hears right before the individual they are calling answers the phone. Caller tunes are popular in Ghana and other African countries for promoting religious messages and songs of popular artists.

“It is surprising that despite the popularity of caller tunes in Africa, researchers have not explored such an innovative feature of cell phones for disseminating health information,” Appiah said. “Our preliminary study in Ghana shows that even non-blood donors want to download blood donation-themed caller tunes to their phones due to the blood-donation shortages.”

According to the World Health Organization, countries need to achieve blood donation rates of at least 1 per 100 people, but worldwide 67 countries, including 38 African nations, fall below this target. “Using caller tunes to promote blood donation could help Africa achieve this goal,” Appiah said.

Appiah’s additional current projects include one in Ghana, where illiteracy is high. He is investigating the use of radio drama to promote breast-feeding, food safety and public health. He is also exploring the use of storytelling and picture drawing to educate children and their parents in the correct use of antibiotics. In Ethiopia, Appiah and colleagues are pilot testing the use of radio drama and trained community health workers in promoting childhood vaccinations.

As the director of the school’s Research Program on Public and International Engagement, Appiah is helping facilitate collaborations with international institutions for mutual research and other endeavors. Twice named as a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow, the international fellowship program facilitates engagement between scholars born in Africa who are now based in the United States or Canada and scholars in Africa on mutually beneficial academic activities.

Appiah will work in Africa this summer with Irene Kretchy, PhD, of the University of Ghana, to conduct content analysis of both African and American newspaper reports on medication non-adherence, design socio-behavioral research strategies to address the issue and train students and faculty in writing effective media and policy briefs.

“It is my hope that this fellowship will lay the groundwork for the future establishment of an international partnership with the School of Public Health and the University of Ghana to enhance research, teaching and public health practice,” Appiah said.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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