#KnapChat: Dr Louise Dann, United Nations’ Resource & Partnerships Advisor, on Digital Media & Health

Louise Dann

“I’ve seen a lot of places and sadly a lot of poverty and inequality, but I always see hope, ambition and a determination to give a better life for the next generation,” says Dr Louise Dann, Resource and Partnerships Advisor at United Nations.

Louise’s job takes her all around the world building partnerships and creating strategies and campaigns to improve widespread public health.

In this week’s #KnapChat, Louise delves into the expertise and amazing experiences she has gained from her professional journey so far, discussing digital media’s role in health and wellbeing, as well as the importance of finding and working towards a shared objective when it comes to building trust around the globe.

KW: So Louise, as Resource and Partnerships Advisor at the United Nations Population Fund, how do you build trust with the people you work with?

Louise: It’s old but ‘in person’ is the quickest and best way to get to know someone’s human side. However, being in the same location as your work colleagues is more of a luxury these days and certainly for my role at the UN where I advise country offices, it is just not possible.

I try to get as close to personal as I can; phone, online chat, WhatsApp, anything informal; and commit to being responsive. Email is our official traffic but almost everyone wants to check something informally before committing to email and if you can help your colleagues and answer their questions, you immediately build trust.

KW: Why are relationships so important in your line of work?

Louise: Different entities have different positions they need to protect and assert. This can cause conflict, but if you can create good personal relationships, you can usually maintain a shared objective, even when differences arise between entities or individuals.

KW: What, in your opinion, are the most important ingredients for building relationships?

Louise: A sincere willingness to see things from the other’s perspective. I find that acknowledging another individual’s priorities and trying to fit those into the way forward helps people believe in a shared objective and builds trust.

KW: How have digital communications transformed the way you nurture relationships around the world?

Louise: At the UN, I work with people all around the world, in many different time zones, and the digital world has fantastically improved the speed of communications and, therefore, progress. So, if you work intensively on a project you can feel like you know your colleagues very well, despite working remotely and never meeting face-to-face.

However, stressful deadlines, misinterpretation and sometimes cultural differences can be amplified through digital media, and it can take longer to rebuild relationships after a dispute aired online.

KW: How has travelling around the globe helped your ability to develop partnerships with people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures?

Louise: I’ve seen a lot of places and sadly a lot of poverty and inequality, but I always see hope, ambition and a determination to give a better life for the next generation. These values are universal and if you can respect and agree on them, you can create bonds between people of different backgrounds and cultures and work towards a common goal.

KW: In what ways do you have to vary your communications from country to country?

Louise: In some countries, intelligence and technical expertise are ultimately respected, and demonstrating this is enough. In other societies, recognising authority is most important and has to be done before you can talk about anything else. In some regions, no one will trust you until you’ve shared a social event, a drink or a dance.

I have to be perceptive to what is going on around me, the unwritten etiquette or cultural expectation, and generally get stuck in!

Perhaps contrary to expectations or maybe just luck, I haven’t experienced a great deal of sexism, despite sometimes being in a predominantly male environment. My experience has been that after initial reactions, most people take everyone at face value, particularly if you’re respectful and demonstrate credibility.

I’ve learnt to pay more attention and speak to a person’s human side, their dignity and aspirations, to help build relationships. This works just as much as acknowledging their professional side.

KW: From your experience, what have you learned are the key qualities of a leader/manager?

Louise: I greatly admire leaders who demonstrate enthusiasm, accountability and being a good listener. Essentially for me, a good leader co-owns responsibility for success, walks the talk in motivating staff and is open to feedback and staff wellbeing. I know from my own experience that these qualities in a manager motivate me far more than any concerns about personal success or failure.

Louise Dann United Nations
Louise speaking at an event in Washington DC.

KW: What has been the most rewarding experience in your career thus far?

Louise: Recently, I have been working on an online campaign to encourage people to talk about sensitive health issues: ‘Let’s Talk!’. Using digital media across a range of platforms allowed us to tap into many different entities; the private sector, celebrities, NGOs and governments; who can influence the general public to think about and discuss these health issues.

The high point for me was when the First Lady of Turkey attended a Let’s Talk event and spoke out against female genital mutilation, saying there was no religious or medical justification for this horrific practice. Having the wife of the President of a Muslim country speak out on this issue has huge influence and hopefully can change people’s perception and change the lives of women and girls in the future.

KW: That’s amazing! In terms of our own perception of public health, has digital media changed this?

Louise: Absolutely, digital media has made health a topic that is accessible for everyone to discuss. Previously, health knowledge and information were in the hands of only a few. Digital media puts health information in the hands of the many. This freedom of information also brings more responsibility to those who carry it (the digital providers).

This information revolution will hopefully bring about measurable results. In empowering individuals to manage their own health, the digital world is providing individuals with the means to make positive choices that impact their health and lifestyle. Additional momentum for individual users can be encouraged by incentives (potentially financial) and success shared socially. At a more macro level, digital media provides a huge data bank for health providers to research and to optimise systems and services.

KW: Can platforms such as social media be used to drive measurable behaviour change then?

Louise: Social media has a huge potential for public health and improving the lives and wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Media and mobile platforms have already dramatically improved the availability of information and access to health and social services, contributing to healthier, more equal societies. However, freedom of information also means that social media can be the unwitting conduit for fear, discrimination and misinformation. Who, and how to manage this risk is probably the tricky topic for the next few years.

Louise Dann UN
Louise at the UN in New York.

KW: Can more be done through the use of digital media?

Louise: Digital providers could be more aware that the health and wellbeing of their users is integral to their experience and use of social media and there is gain for both sides when using digital media for social good and public health. We are seeing huge growth in digital platforms for health, but it is still seen as niche and perhaps not as lucrative as other areas of digital.

More widespread use of digital media for health will connect people to the right information or the right health/social services, tracking and improving their own health, reducing the need for in-person consultations.

Giving people the ability to monitor and respond to their own health needs is very empowering, will improve health outcomes and should be much more cost-effective. I hope that eventually digital will allow us to move from a system of addressing bad health problems to good health maintenance.  

KW: Have you had any issues with fake news? If so, how do you combat such problems?

Louise: Earlier in my career, I worked on the legal trial concerning the MMR vaccine and whether it caused autism. At the heart of this legal case was a small scientific research paper that was widely extrapolated into tabloid scare stories, reducing public confidence in vaccines and the broader public health system.

The damage is still being seen today with the increased numbers of measles cases and the deaths of children and young people who have not been vaccinated.  To be honest, I am not sure how we balance the freedom of information on digital media with the need to ensure that information is correct and not misinterpreted, but certainly the MMR example teaches us that we need to find a balance.

Final Words

We see many headlines detailing the apparent negatives of social media on health, but it’s refreshing to hear from Louise Dann, a PhD scientist, public health expert and UN Advisor, that such perceptions are gradually changing.

No matter your background or place of birth, health and wellbeing is a common goal and universal value we should all be working towards in one way or another. Digital media’s potential to empower, enlighten and make connections can only facilitate this.

Yes, Louise’s example of the MMR vaccine highlights there is still work to be done in terms of finding that balance between freedom and responsibility, but I for one join her in hoping that we choose not to shy away from the accessibility that social media grants and instead continue to put “health information in the hands of the many”, working together in moving “from a system of addressing bad health problems” to one that makes full use of digital and social media to maintain and strengthen wellbeing across the planet.

Oliver Wilkinson
Content Manager

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