Ghana: The lack of quality health communication and its implications

Anything human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.

In the last week, I have tried to get an understanding as to why as citizens we are not involved in the day-to-day conversations around the healthcare we receive. Often, health is only in the news as an after event or as part of political foreplay. For example, when there has been an avoidable death, a patient has been turned away from critical care because of lack of beds, or medical supplies have been diverted etc. In such situations, we oscillate between several positions. Those who shout themselves hoarse and go back to sleep, those who remain apathetic or those who accept the incident as the will of God.

In all these instances, we fail to pause and ask ourselves simple questions that may prevent future occurrences of the same situation. In the early part of 2017, there was a report that a family was holding the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital responsible for the disappearance of the corpse of their newborn baby. The entire nation was gripped by the story with radio and TV stations engaging in a hive of activity. Does the reader have an idea of how this situation was resolved?

I also recall the brouhaha that followed the unfortunate death due to what became known as “no bed syndrome.” I remember the noise that was made that culminated in the Ministry of Health setting up a committee to investigate the phenomenon. I remember information to the effect that the committee had completed its work and submitted its report. Yet, to this day, I doubt if anyone has followed up to check the content of the report, what the key learnings were, whether the content had been implemented or anyone following up to ascertain if this problem persists.

Truth is the quality of healthcare any society receives has a direct correlation with the quality and extent of health communication that takes place.

I use these two examples to illustrate why as a country the concept of health communication is lost on us. It is because of two main reasons. Firstly, those in whom we entrust the responsibility to deliver healthcare are averse to the fact that we as citizens need to input into the decisions they make and that consequential information they hold as a result ought to be proactively shared with us. In some instances, they even choose to withhold our personal health information with an excuse that it is in our interest. Forgetting that as patients (data subjects) we are the rightful owners of the content of any records and have a legal right to full disclosure.

On the other hand, those of us who are the rightful owners of information on health in general and our personal health information specifically are also accepting of these behaviours either through ignorance, naivety or a sense of misplaced respect. In the end, we become complicit and ultimately suffer the consequences of this lack of communication.

Truth is the quality of healthcare any society receives has a direct correlation with the quality and extent of health communication that takes place. Throughout history, intense communication has been relied on as a means of overcoming considerable challenges relating to health. A few examples that come to mind are the Boston Smallpox epidemic of 1721, the fight against cardiovascular diseases in the United Kingdom in the late eighties and early nineties, the vaccination drive in Ghana that pushed our inoculation percentage in children under five years to over 90 per cent after 2010, and so on.

These examples point to the fact that health communication has been shown to influence societal behaviours and attitudes towards public health issues like epidemics, hygiene and sanitation. It doesn’t take a prophet to point the reader to how our society is failing on all fronts. We are a country that lives in hope that a cholera outbreak does not occur whilst continuing to buy food that has been prepared under unhygienic conditions and sold at the street side next to an open gutter filled with stagnant water thanks to the drain being clogged with plastics, filth and in some cases human and animal excreta. While purchasing, we are left at the mercy of mosquitoes whose augmented population is self-inflicted. Is it too difficult for one to connect the dots and see how a failure of communication leaves us destitute in this area?

Communication in health can also help increase society’s awareness of health issues in general and how to discern facts from speculation. In this era of digital communication, the importance of this cannot be underestimated. A simple look on the internet and social media reveal the extent of miscommunication around health that occurs and the gullibility with which many of us are swayed.

Communication in health can also help increase society’s awareness of health issues in general and how to discern facts from speculation.

The putrid mix of health, religion and healing has escalated to a point where a sizable proportion of our population has become vulnerable to all sorts. Examples that come to mind are recent video clips by Brother Sammy, claiming he had products that could cure HIV and AIDS, cancer and other chronic diseases. Without any verification, many were sharing on social media until he was arrested thanks to the intervention of the Food and Drugs Authority. In any serious society, this would have served as a trigger for a look at the loopholes that allowed this to occur in the first place and how positive communication and education could have helped avert the situation. Apart from that, his subsequent apology would have also received scrutiny and so would his trial or the absence of it.

The fact is, health communication is a speciality that combines journalism with a detailed understanding of the socio-legal aspects of health provision and one that cannot be engaged in on an ad-hoc basis. It involves training in methods and strategies that help in the effective communication of public health messages, research, follow up and evaluation. Unfortunately, our society has failed to give it the focus it needs. Few if any of our press houses can boast of a single individual with expertise in the area. Often, they are known to cobble up a jack of all trades in the field of journalism when a health story breaks. Neither can I say I am aware of anyone in our health service with expertise in this field. My research in this area hit a blank on both fronts.

I would end by saying, the level of decadence in our health provision, is a minefield that is waiting to be detonated. It is an endeavour that needs dedicated research and clear reportage. It is an area that is human, must be mentioned, explored and managed. This will not happen because those in charge want it to, it will when as citizens we decided we want it to. Until then, we must wait and wonder, who will bell this cat?

By Kwame Sarpong Asiedu

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