Training Healthcare Workers During a Pandemic 

The importance of flexible online training solutions for clinical practitioners 

Genomics is being implemented into healthcare and clinical practice on an unprecedented scale, creating a growing set of clinical skills gaps that urgently need addressing. New training solutions are being developed, with emphasis being placed on online learning as an assessable method to overcome the challenges of reaching busy healthcare professionals.

But what happens to training when a pandemic hits?

It goes without saying that the pandemic has caused a lot of disruption within healthcare environments over the past year, and this has compounded the existing challenges of finding time for advancing clinical skills while also delivering healthcare at the frontline.

This has made online training solutions for clinical practitioners all the more important to enable healthcare professionals to upskill during both a transformative and disruptive period, to continue the delivery of high-quality care and good patient outcomes. Training disruption can be partially overcome through the application of innovative technology, yet technology can create its own complications for accessible and effective training.

What is clear from the recent experience of the education team at Wellcome Connecting Science, with challenge comes the opportunity to adapt and learn.

In this recent blog article, our Education Manager, Rachel Berkson, shares how her team have been working to develop an online course for primary care clinicians to ensure training opportunities adapt to cope with the pressures of a pandemic, and what it means for the development of future online courses.

The challenges of developing online courses during disprutive times, by Rachel Berkson (Wellcome Connecting Science, Education Manager)

Early in 2020, Wellcome Connecting Science started planning a FutureLearn MOOC targeted at primary care clinicians, helping them to understand new genomic technologies, in collaboration with Health Education England. The course was planned from the start to be online, because we wanted to make it accessible to busy GPs and nurses by giving them the opportunity to learn when they had a free moment. The development process was also planned to be online, because we were collaborating with GP experts from all around the country. What was not part of the plan was that we would be completely shut out from ever meeting in person.

Technology was both a huge challenge and a lifesaver. We went through several different options for conference calls just as the whole world was migrating to Zoom. Document sharing was also a challenge. We’ve generally used Google drives for collaborative editing in the past, but faced technical literacy barriers. Even scheduling meetings ran into problems with incompatible calendar systems! A big part of the problem was that IT systems in healthcare environments can be heavily locked down, or just old and slow. Our educator team couldn’t just pop in to their office to use software, and often had to resort to working on their mobile phones.

Simultaneously, the team were dealing with the same human challenges we all faced as the pandemic raged, working from home with limited childcare, adapting to the ever-changing lockdown rules. And more so because they were working on the front line, seeing patients, being redeployed for Covid work or vaccination, having to manage telephone appointments and taking up the slack when hospitals were almost overwhelmed with treating Covid. We were very conscious that our learners would be facing similar challenges: not only finding time to study on top of a heavy clinical load, but doing so when busier than ever, likely with restricted computer access.

Making sure the course was directly clinically relevant was even more essential in these circumstances. To address this, we structured it around a series of case studies representing typical patients for real primary care. We also had to make doubly sure the course was well structured, with clear explanations and links between different sections. Learners might have weathered multiple crises or emergencies since they last progressed on the course, so we couldn’t just assume they would remember perfectly. We prioritised making the information available in multiple formats, and made sure everything would still work if you had a tiny screen or a slow, locked-down computer that couldn’t run the latest software. Several of our reviewers asked for a single document listing all the links, tools and resources, so that they would have everything available in one place, a practice we will be incorporating into future courses.

One unexpected issue we faced was making videos for the course remotely. Instead of meeting up with a videographer with professional equipment, we had to make videos in people’s homes, using whatever they had available in the way of webcams and smartphones, and recording video calls for our interviews with experts. In many ways the planning was the hardest part; with no fixed filming day, the team kept putting off making their videos and the whole process took far longer than expected. On the positive side, we were able to interview some really big names, because busy experts were available for half an hour for an online conversation when they might not have been in a position to set aside half a day for travel.

After all the heartache, we did come up with a successful course, completed by 1000 healthcare students and professionals from all over the world. It was really informative to realise that a good course depends on excellent design and collaboration, far more than on access to the technologies we usually take for granted. Of course, a pandemic is hardly the only situation when you want to work with people who are busy dealing with crises, and have limited access to travel, technology and even time. We’ve always tried to consider learners in less ideal circumstances, but now that we’ve lived through it ourselves, we have much better ideas for what works.

“This course gave me an excellent grounding in the basics of genomic medicine and how it can be applied in primary care. The clinical scenarios were well chosen and instructive.”

Genomic Scenarios in Primary Care, Course Participant 

Key learning points: 

  • It’s vital that we don’t ignore the training needs of healthcare professionals during the pandemic
  • Consider the limitations of technology for both educators and learners
  • Build in plenty of time for planning and set a fixed day for major blockers like filming video content
  • You can achieve a lot with off-the-shelf technology if you set things up right
  • There will always be some learners trying to fit studying around life events, and good structure makes all the difference.
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