Community engagement is the bridge that connects researchers and local communities; however, face-to-face engagement is often limited in reach and scale — especially during a pandemic. In a recently published paper, researchers from Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota evaluated the feasibility of a virtual statewide Facebook community platform to enhance public trust and engagement with health research in Minnesota.
“Community engagement is essential for advancing clinical and translational science and improving public health,” says Christi Patten, Ph.D., a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic and first author on the study. “As researchers, we needed to continuously identify ways to engage individuals through two-way communications in order to meet the needs of the community.”
Using results from a previous survey, researchers determined that individuals statewide in Minnesota were interested in a virtual place to receive credible, accurate, and reliable health and research information. They wanted to learn about research findings and access information about participating in clinical trials. And about half of the respondents with an existing Facebook profile were willing to join a Facebook page focusing on conversations about health and research topics.
To meet this need, the research team established MN Research Link, a public Facebook page to serve as a credible source of evidence-based health information and research dissemination, and, ultimately, to enhance the public’s trust and engagement in health research. Researchers evaluated the Facebook page for approximately one year, from June 2019 to June 2020.
Earlier survey results identified specific health topics of interest for the social media platform, such as mental health, health and wellness, chronic diseases and infectious diseases. These data informed the content that was posted on the MN Research Link page. Health and research topics with a connection to the Minnesota community were prioritized. And as trending health and research issues emerged, such as the health effects of electronic cigarette use, the team added relevant content around these topics.
“With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic approximately six months into the study, we had to pivot our content and consider ways to distribute current information in a timely matter to keep people engaged and interested,” says Dr. Patten. “We created content on COVID-19 preventative and mitigation strategies including Minnesota’s masking mandate.”
Promotion and Evaluation
The team promoted the MN Research Link page through targeted Facebook advertisements and more traditional ways, such as distributing flyers during community presentations and outreach events. The advertisements targeted Minnesota residents aged 18 years or older. And of the 221 targeted Facebook advertisements, 20 targeted rural populations.
“The study identifies an opportunity for researchers to engage with patients and the community on diseases and topics in which they are interested,” says Tabatha Brockman, assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic and co-author on the study. “This more personal connection may lead to long-term engagement between the community and physicians and researchers, opening the door for better community health and increasing interest and participation in research.”
“Because about 27% of Minnesotans reside in rural areas, we knew we needed a platform that could successfully reach both urban and rural residents of Minnesota,” says Dr. Patten. “Because social media can be used to reach those in remote rural areas, we also assessed the proportion of our Facebook followers from rural counties.”
Preliminary data, identified through measuring participation, reach and engagement of the MN Research link page, suggests that Facebook is a feasible channel to reach and engage a virtual Minnesota community interested in health and research topics. After the 12-month assessment period, the page had 1,406 followers, exceeding the research team’s goal of 500, and 31% were rural residents. Retention in this digital community was extremely high; 99.7% remained followers at 12 months.
Researchers hope that this study can provide a model for the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Consortium for community outreach and engagement. The CTSA program supports a national network of medical research institutions, including Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, that work to speed the translation of research results into therapies, tools and patient care practices that improve community health. “The idea that we can this virtual platform to engage communities in conversations about health and research topics that address their needs, even during a pandemic, is very promising,” says Dr. Patten.
“The results of this study open up opportunities that we are only beginning to picture,” adds Milton Eder, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota and co-author on the study. “Using social media to engage new populations gives researchers a way to ask new questions in order to create meaningful conversations with communities about both research and health.”
This project was supported by grant numbers UL1 TR002377 (Mayo Clinic CTSA) (CAP, JEB, TAB, MVS, IWW, MGZR), UL1 TR002494 (UMN CTSI) (ELC, JC, ME), and UL1 TR002494-S1 (UMN CTSI) (CAP, JEB, ELL, TAB, MVS, IWW, JC, MGZR, ME), from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.