Lessons from the COVID-19 frontline captured in “Health Worker Voices” WhatsApp project

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Voice memos from clinicians are being collected via a private WhatsApp channel to capture their experience of the coronavirus pandemic and improve future preparedness. Led by researchers at the University of Melbourne’s Nossal Institute for Global Heath, the project is analysing the stories and collating key lessons about health systems’ responses to the pandemic across a range of places and over different time periods. The project is open to all clinicians, with contributions being anonymous and securely encrypted.

The idea for the WhatsApp channel was borne from the experience of other epidemics / pandemics, principally the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014-16, which highlighted that in order for valuable lessons to be learned around support needs, the response capacity and resilience of health systems, insight is needed into how decisions are made and with what effect, as the public health needs evolve.

Clinicians are incredibly busy, but when they can be captured, their insights can be hugely valuable to the review and development of effective strategies that both support health care delivery during epidemics as well as the clinicians themselves. The project also aims to enable frontline workers to feel heard, and the researchers hope the sharing of stories may be cathartic for clinicians during a pressurised time.

Clinicians can share their stories by going directly to COVID-19 Health Worker Voices hosted by WhatsApp on their smartphone and texting “hello” to start. More information on the COVID-19 Health Worker Voices website.

University of Melbourne lead researcher Daniel Strachan said that during the current COVID-19 pandemic it is critical to find novel ways to engage with clinicians and discover, in real time and without filtering, what their frustrations, obstacles, triumphs and difficulties are.

“We want to know what helps and what works well during these crises. Healthcare workers may have previously been unable to voice their concerns about their work for a range of reasons. We want to give them that chance as well as to share their successes,” Dr Strachan said.

The COVID-19 Health Worker Voices WhatsApp channel was developed in conjunction with researchers in the Melbourne eResearch Group within Melbourne School of Engineering’s School of Computing and Information Systems and supported by Amazon Web Services. It is completely anonymous, using artificial intelligence to transcribe audio into text and automates text analytics, e.g. sentiment analysis, for researchers to later examine. Importantly the data set is not available to anyone but the researchers and it is fully encrypted on the Cloud.

“By giving health care workers access to an anonymous and encrypted application, we hope that they will feel able to voice the things that matter most to them. Unlike other projects that ask how healthcare workers are faring, our project is unprompted and gives power to health workers to determine what is important to them and what they feel needs sharing. After all, they are in the best position to judge,” Dr Strachan said.

“Using a simple interface that allows workers to record voice memos gives us access to authentic and unfiltered responses,” Head of Nossal Institute’s Health Systems, Governance and Financing, Katherine Gilbert said.

Stories of challenge and innovation will be captured, as the needs and capacities of health systems evolve during the current crisis. “It’s hoped that the simple voice memos will give us insight into the specific challenges they face, as well as solutions proposed and innovations undertaken, by both health workers and the health systems in which they work. The stories will also convey the range of coping strategies adopted by health workers over time,” Dr Strachan said.