How online tools can encourage public engagement with research

Friday 21 April 2023

Public involvement in healthcare research is a growing priority across the world. Members of the public can have a significant impact on how research is carried out and can be involved at any number of stages throughout the research process. From setting healthcare research priorities right at the beginning, to helping evaluate the end product of a long-term project, the role of the public alongside clinicians, academics and industrial partners, is invaluable.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically impacted how patients and members of the public engaged in research. Through the use of online tools, researchers were not only able to continue their work with the public, but found that these methods actually removed some of the barriers to participation. An article written by Lise Sproson and colleagues at NIHR Devices for Dignity, highlights examples of online tools being successfully utilised to overcome these barriers and effectively engage the public with research during the pandemic.

One of the examples that illustrates the benefits of employing the online approach to work with the public is a project that was run here from Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust with the small/medium enterprise, Ostique. This company develops tools for people who need an ostomy, a procedure that creates an opening in the abdomen to treat a digestive or urinary health condition.

Prior to the pandemic, Ostique were able to run face-to-face sessions with children and young people at a hospital, where they would work together to design products that prioritised the needs of the users. As a result of the pandemic, Ostique began running online video call sessions instead. This alternative platform turned out to provide a range of benefits to the patients and researchers alike. Families could attend the sessions from a safe space i.e. at home, and be involved in research projects from very early stages, even before funding applications. These sessions provided the research team with more information about their projects than the usual in-person approach. Although having face-to-face sessions is now more of a possibility than during the pandemic, online tools may be a more favourable method of engaging with research for many people in the future.

While incorporating technology into patient and public involvement in research brings with it a host of benefits, it is important to acknowledge that access to digital platforms and devices is not equal for everyone. Addressing the inequalities in ‘digital health’ is vital and is one of the most important challenges to overcome in healthcare today.

To read about the other examples highlighted in the paper by Lise Sproson and colleagues, please use the link below.