Adam Hassan and Lashanda Skerritt are trainees in the Infectious Diseases and Immunology in Global Health Program at the Research Institute of the MUHC

Two RI-MUHC research trainees share their experience as community outreach panelists

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted gaps in science communication and undermined trust in public discourse with authority figures. Vaccine hesitancy continues to underscore the challenges of building confidence in public health measures, particularly in communities that have been marginalized by our health systems and institutions. The needs and concerns of several communities in Canada, including Black communities, have historically been overlooked or neglected. Addressing vaccine hesitancy requires approaches that acknowledge and focus on the concerns of those communities whose voices have been excluded.

In March 2021 we were invited to join Momar Ndao, DVM, PhD, and Makeda Semret, MD, M.Sc., members of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), and fellow McGill student Khandideh Williams, as panelists in an outreach webinar titled “Black Health and COVID-19.” Organized by the Federation of Black Canadians, the event aimed to tackle vaccine misinformation and address concerns and questions from members of the Black community, where vaccine hesitancy is higher compared to the general Canadian population. Participants joined from several provinces and posed thoughtful questions about the development of COVID-19 vaccines, risks of vaccine side effects, and risks of serious COVID-19 illness.

Tackling the misinformation and fear preventing people and communities from accessing healthcare resources starts with building trust and meeting people where they are.

We drew on our research and knowledge to address questions about how vaccines work and explain why we can be confident in their safety and the importance of vaccination for individual and community health. Above all, we learned that creating a safe space for dialogue is crucial for participants to voice their questions and concerns and to be receptive to new information.

Vaccine mandates and even various forms of incentivization can be rendered useless if mistrust is not addressed. Tackling the misinformation and fear preventing people and communities from accessing healthcare resources starts with building trust and meeting people where they are. As research trainees in the health sciences, we are well positioned to apply our skills and knowledge to support communities through science communication and trust-building. We hope that these five take-aways from our experience will help fellow trainees who are considering community outreach as they embark on an academic year packed with new commitments.

  1. Venture out of the academic bubble. It is important to recognize that as trainees, although we are developing our knowledge and expertise, we have insights that are worth sharing with non-academic communities. We can also help to communicate scientific findings in language that is more easily understood by non-academic audiences. These educational exchanges are bidirectional, as we can also develop a better understanding of the questions being asked by communities or those impacted by our research.
  2. Know your limitations. It is also essential to recognize where our expertise ends. We may not have the answers to all of the questions asked of us. Recognizing our limitations is an important part of communication. We can use the tools and networks at our disposal to look for answers elsewhere or ask those with greater expertise.
  3. Build trust. We are all members of research trainee and academic communities, but we are also members of communities outside academia. Working with communities where we have existing or long-standing connections can help to facilitate scientific communication. As members of the Black community, a shared identity helped us establish trust and understanding with other members of that community.
  4. Actively engage with your audience. It is easy to assume that others will listen to us since we are coming from a place of expertise and knowledge. However, it is vital to engage and respect your audience by listening to them before advising or informing them about the topic at hand. Create a space for participants to voice their concerns and truly hear them out. If you have the privilege of being invited to speak at a community-led event, these are great forums for knowledge exchange, as participants are often receptive to hearing information and ideas from you.
  5. Diversify the perspectives. When sharing insights and expertise with a lay audience, there is value in providing different viewpoints and experiences. In the case of our March 2021 panel, audience members were exposed to perspectives coming from scientific research, medical practice and public health.

Step up and enjoy a rewarding exchange at your next event!

Lashanda Skerritt is an MD-PhD candidate at McGill University and an RI-MUHC trainee in the Infectious Diseases and Immunology in Global Health (IDIGH) Program. Her research focuses on healthcare service delivery for women living with HIV in Canada.

Adam Hassan is a PhD candidate and RI-MUHC trainee in the IDIGH program. His research focuses on the development of novel vaccines for parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis.