Does meeting virtually have its benefits?

As part of our reflections on PPI in the age of the pandemic, we have asked colleagues, researchers and public contributors to write about their experiences of Wessex PIN (Public Involvement Network) coffee mornings, which were initially held to maintain contact with public contributors when face-to-face patient and public involvement (PPI) meetings became difficult to hold.

In this post, Justin Strain, one of the researchers who spoke at a coffee morning, writes about presenting his research concept and gathering feedback in the “virtual world”. Justin is a Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist in Pain Management and Spines, working in Hythe on the edge of the New Forest. Here’s what he has to say…

Here’s what he has to say…

It’s early March 2020. We’re all aware of COVID 19. It seems a slightly distant threat – scary but, to most people, not quite real – yet. Words like ‘Zoom’ and ‘Teams’ have yet to enter my vocabulary – at least in their current context.

And then suddenly the world changed.

Across the NHS, we redeployed to different services – learning new (or long-forgotten) skills and quickly adapting to new ways of delivering care. One of the first adaptations was digital healthcare. Almost overnight, face to face consultations were replaced by video appointments, online groups and internet apps. Of course none of these were new ideas, but they’d never really caught on in the NHS. Now everyone was ‘zooming’ and it seemed the only safe way to keep many NHS services running. So we just took everything we did face to face, and changed it to online. Simple, right?

Or maybe not. It became quickly apparent that there were very different challenges to providing services online rather than face to face. The whole experience was very different, for both clinician and service user – and there was little evidence to tell us how to do things better. We needed more research about the experiences of people participating in the new online healthcare world.

I resolved to explore this are in my own clinical field – pain management. I applied for a Clinical Academic Internship with ARC Wessex who provided funding to enable research into this rapidly developing area of clinical practice. They also provided a group of insightful and experienced members of the public, to provide feedback on the research project itself. The feedback was (appropriately) arranged via an online coffee morning.

I approached the online coffee morning with slight nervousness. What would the other participants think of our project? How well would we interact with each other? Would doing things remotely all feel a little too… remote?

I realised, with some surprise, that many of my anxieties may be echoed by NHS patients, trying to find their way around the new, digitalised NHS. While the practical benefits seemed obvious – no need for patients or clinicians to travel; no risk of cross-infection – some people I spoke to found internet communication difficult to access, tiring, and generally stressful. But others found it energising, liberating, and felt more confident over the computer than in a face to face situation.

The reality of the online coffee morning was incredibly positive. The other group members were clearly very experienced, both in providing feedback and in making the online coffee morning work. They were enthusiastic and supportive, while offering invaluable and clear advice on how to improve the project. It took me a bit of getting used to. I am no technology expert so it took me a while to find my way around online, and I found the inevitable computer glitches a bit stressful. It was a bit more of a formal atmosphere as the computer couldn’t cope with everyone talking at once, although this meant that by necessity, we all gave each other that bit more space to speak – perhaps it was helpful to be a bit more conscious of when we should be listening rather than transmitting. Most importantly, I was impressed at how the other group members were able to put me at my ease, despite the virtual format, and I was surprised how easily and naturally we all chatted.

I’m not sure how much my experience reflects the experiences of other people accessing digital healthcare, but it has certainly whetted my appetite to find out.

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