Good communication skills: an essential trait for doing research

As the summer holiday approaches, Changzhi students experience their busiest time of the year as they prepare diligently for their exams and wait for the results of the year-end parent-teacher conference. At the same time, researchers from the Changzhi School Edu-Salt “salt reduction in school children” project rush to collect the project’s baseline data that including samples and data from the students and their families, before the summer holiday.

Research fellow Jing ZHANG and intern Yuan MA have been in Changzhi for nearly a month collecting data. Their colleagues in Beijing barely hear anything from them except for a few texts messages.

“It’s exhausting! Everyone is under a huge strain.” Jing adds a frowning emoticon at the end of his sentence. “It feels like 70% of the time is spent on communicating with different people.”

His experience may break the stereotype held by most people about medical research. Generally speaking, clinical research is thought to be about the data analyzed and achievements published in professional medical journals. The reality of implanting a project in the field is very different from that impression.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) studies aim at searching for approaches to improve health cost-effectively and in a short time. By communicating with different populations and winning their trust, The George Institute for Global Health at Peking University Health Science Center (TGI @ PUHSC) is able to translate our research findings into policy guidelines and practice, influencing policy-makers to bring the best available evidence into their decision making, which will then affect crucial change and benefit more people.

Since our focus is on behavioral change rather than biological samples, good communication skills are particularly important. Especially in the field of NCD research, communication is an essential and indispensable tool.

The 40 days of a large-scale baseline assessment reveals the art and power of communication.

Tenaciously follow-up with the participants

A prefecture-level city of Shanxi province, Changzhi city has a population of over three million, half of which are reside in urban environments. A total of 28 primary schools with 280 children aged ≈11 years were recruited into the study. Additionally, 560 adult family members of the participating children were invited as well. Implementing this study in an urban area, as opposed to rural area, may result in low compliance and high participant attrition.

“During the baseline assessment, we need to measure blood pressure, height and weight circumference, and collect two 24-hour urines, the latter being of the greatest importance. However, people in urban area all live a fast-paced life with enormous pressure from work, so it is hard to make appointments with them at home to collect the data. Collecting two 24-hour urines is a considerable inconvenience. In addition, factors such as the long distance between work and home also impacts on the time and quality of urine collection,” said intern Yuan MA.

She added “It’s quite common that people miss appointments. Therefore we need to proactively communicate with the students and their parents, confirm everything, and be flexible to respond to any emergencies that may turn up.”

Eliminate concerns

It’s natural for some participants to miss appointments, but the main challenge is to remember this fact when in the field. Jing said, “Some participants were very cooperative, some refused to participate immediately due to personal reasons, and there were others who had agreed to participate at first but when we tried to collect urine thought we might be trying to sell drugs or promote particular hospitals and withdrew. We understand their behavior in view of today’s social environment in China.”

He continued, “Therefore our key work is to be upfront and explain that that our study has with no commercial purpose. We provide detailed information about every procedure of the study, and reiterate the difficulties of urine collection. At the same time, results of the laboratory tests, the accuracy of which we explain to them is determined by the correctness and timeliness of the urine collection, will be returned to them. As long as they are aware that the study is for their health, their concerns can be alleviated. In fact, most of the participants are quite supportive of our work after being introduced thoroughly to the whole project.”

Jing recalled, “There was a father, a truck driver, whose work required him to drive at night. Unfortunately he failed to meet us at the agreed upon time for the urine collection. When the clock said 20:00, we figured this collection was a failure when suddenly we got a call from him. He assured us that he had finished the collection as requested and would deliver it directly after finishing his work at 23:00. We were deeply touched by his dedication, especially since at first he was reluctant to participate, but then obviously had a change of heart”

Mobilize personnel

It’s not possible for Jing and Yuan to coordinate 280 students and their family members on their own. Approximately 20 professors and 40 students from the Changzhi Medical School, led by provincial PI Dr. Xiangxian FENG, served as local research coordinators and assistants. To coordinate a team of this size, personnel management and time management became crucial to work efficiently while maintaining data quality.

“Challenges and disagreements are inevitable; motivation may wane. Yet we need to be aware of our role. In addition to research work, we were also responsible for coordinating the promotion of the study and all the local staff,” Jing said. “We respect and appreciate everyone that has participated in the study. Timely and proactive communication is critical to problem-solving. Seeking help from the management team is also important when the problem we can not solve problems on our own.”

Communication skills are acquired and accumulated through experience, and key to the successful implementation of projects. The School Edu-Salt project in Changzhi is halfway through its course, providing our researchers an important opportunity to enrich their communication experience. TGI @ PUHSC can capitalize on this field experience for future NCD studies when working with unique study populations that require a localized approach.