Doctors and nurses have been found to be the most trusted sources for vaccine advice needed by South Africans in a study that was funded by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and the Solidarity Fund.
The research conducted Ask Africa found that 43% of the polled population said they would go to doctors and nurses when they needed advice and information about Covid-19 vaccines.
The research, which looked at public perceptions, will be used to inform the government’s communication strategy on the vaccine roll-out.
About 37% of the respondents said they trusted the government while health experts were trusted by 35%, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) was trusted by 26% of the population.
The chief executive of Ask Africa, Andrea Rademeyer, presented the findings at a virtual briefing on Monday, 6 September.
“A lot of research has been conducted on public perceptions and it is simply because perceptions are a moving target, specifically with something as unexpected and new like the coronavirus,” said Rademeyer.
During mid-May and June, 2 000 participants were interviewed face-to-face for at least half an hour across the country where vaccine willingness, agency to act, reasons for hesitancy and the most trusted sources were some of the individual attributes informing behaviour change that were looked at.
“In a lot of research, which we conducted last year, we could see that the higher the trust is with our president, the higher the support was and the willingness to listen to actual communications. Our [former health] minister [Zweli] Mkhize, being a doctor himself, also carried a high level of trust and support of his messages. We could see there was a very clear link that if there’s trust in the government, one would be willing to support the government communications,” explained Rademeyer.
“But the highest trust still lies with doctors and health experts, so the strategy to let scientists such as Professor [Salim Abdool] Karim and other scientists speak directly to the public was very powerful,” she elaborated.
The doctors’ union the South African Medical Association (Sama) told the Mail & Guardian that the findings were not surprising as it had been actively involved in the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) and had ensured that its members adhered to the communication guidelines around vaccines.
“We have tried to advise our members on the ethical code for health professionals and have also advised them to give out accurate, peer-reviewed scientific data to the public,” said Dr Angelique Coetzee, Sama’s chairperson.
She added that as an advisory body, Sama could not hold doctors who gave out inaccurate information about vaccines to account, but would advise aggrieved members of the public to approach the Health Professionals Council of South Africa, which would take action against health professionals who did not adhere to the ethical guidelines for good practice in in the healthcare profession.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) said that the number of people who trusted nurses would have been higher had the government driven an effective public education and awareness campaign.
“Doctors and nurses had been at the forefront of Covid-19 from the beginning and they have used their experiences to communicate. The numbers could have been higher had government driven effective public education and awareness programmes,” said Lwazi Nkolozi, the acting spokesperson for Nehawu.
“We have not received any complaints about our members giving out wrong information about the vaccines and this is mainly because we have been running awareness campaigns for our members. We have also advised members to adhere to the South African nursing code of ethics and the Batho Pele principles,” added Nkolozi.
While both doctors and nurses are trusted by the public, Professor Mosa Moshabela, the chief medical specialist and dean in the school of nursing and public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told those who attended the webinar that there needed to be clarity on who was driving the message and why when creating communication messages.
“The general public is also dealing with information coming from other countries that informs how they engage with vaccines so healthcare workers need to be informed in real time. Healthcare workers may play an important role but healthcare workers are not scientists, they need to be empowered with information so they can impart knowledge to the general public,” said Moshabela.
He also cautioned that although there was trust among doctors and nurses, they too were human and had their own biases, which could sometimes not be in line with government communication.