PROCare4Life Integrated Care and Covid19 – the role of technology to bring us together

The above photo was taken at the kick-off meeting in January where the consortium partners greeted each other with the pre-COVID 19 normality of handshakes and hugs. As the PROCare4Life project nears its one year anniversary Fiona Lyne the Director of Communication at The International Foundation for Integrated Care asks if we can go back to handshakes and hugs.

For many years we listened to anecdotes suggesting that rather than bringing us together, technology actually drives us apart. With children and indeed adults glued to handheld technology intimating that while we were in each other’s presence physically, we were really living separate lives. And while video conferencing technology has existed for some time, organizations have, by and large, chosen to have in-person, face-to-face meetings and events to make real connections, cementing this idea that technology acts as a barrier to relationship building and to make ‘business’ happen we need to look people in the eye and touch skin in a handshake or hug. The artificial barrier that the screen creates means that we lose our ability to feel a person’s presence and therefore read the minor movements of their body that gives us an insight to their demeanour and supports us to understand their emotional state or communication purpose.

At the same time we know too that technology has acted as a link for those who might otherwise have been disconnected. Families reaching out to loved ones far from home via skype or businesses with global offices connecting their staff to build teams across regions and continents.

For the International Foundation for Integrated Care with staff based in Ireland, the UK, France, Spain and Italy and Board members representing all corners of the world, video conferencing technology has been a core part of everything we do since our inception in 2012. So with the onset of COVID 19 we watched the zoom shares rise and observed our network adjust to a world that we were already accustomed to. We noticed levels of anxiety for individuals and organizations as many dipped their toes into the realm of remote collaboration for the first time. We were on hand to advise on best practice to those interested in setting up webinars or project and team meetings that would have taken place physically, but were now forced online.

For the first weeks and months, zoom calls filled our days. As those who usually based themselves with colleagues in offices with tea breaks and water cooler chats found themselves now working alone at home. Perhaps initially a need to prove being busy, the anxiety of missing any COVID 19 related news or maybe a genuine need for connection – but whatever the basis, video conferences were at an all-time high. Memes and tweets with funny stories of unintentional camera on, not off moments; messy backgrounds; interrupting children, spouses, cats and dogs; struggles with unmuting; hacking ‘zoombies’ and; the term ‘zoomitis’ for the inevitable video fatigue, ensued.

But what, through this hasty transition to digital working, have we learned about the role and impact of technology during the time of COVID 19 and beyond?

First and foremost technology is an enabler. During our COVID 19 webinar series built around our Report “Realizing the true value of Integrated Care” which took place in April and May, stories emerged from all over the world about how teams were quickly transitioning or ‘pivoting’ to digital delivery of services. General Practice and Hospital Consultants who were heretofore slow to embrace new ways of working proved that all things were possible under the right set of circumstances. GPs quickly moved to telephone and video consultations and consultants and other clinicians moved to offering physiological care, such as rehabilitation, and psychological services, such as counselling, online.

Secondly, technology acts as a platform for continuing collaboration and knowledge exchange. For the Foundation, we were able to move our physical conference due to take place in Croatia in April to a digital event delivered entirely online in September. Functionalities that were slow to evolve over previous years were quickly accelerated as technology companies stepped up to provide digital tools to mimic what might usually happen at a physical event, with one-to-one meetings spaces, business card exchange function, online exhibitions and so on. Not all of which matched the physical experience but the potential exists nonetheless.

Third, technology removes the financial barriers to involvement. At the Foundation we have seen a spike in attendance to our events from low and middle income countries. Colleagues from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and parts of Asia who we had not engaged with us before have joined the conversation and the movement for change. We have also increased our bursary capacity to offer free places to attend our conferences. As costs associated with flights and accommodation are removed, the limit to the numbers of patients, carers and citizen involvement in our conferences has also been removed. Voices of Lived Experience were recorded and grounded our discussions at ICIC20 with people connecting from their homes and work places all over the world.

And then where to from here? In a post pandemic world will we continue to embrace this online version of ourselves or will we revert to the comfort of handshakes and hugs? Yes of course we will one day connect again on a physical level, but for me, we will never go back to relying on physical contact to make business happen. Rather we will take on board an enlightened view of what technology enables, while understanding its limitations. We will move forward in a hybrid format where all meetings that take place physically will also be accessible online, providing choice, opening doors to all and, removing barriers to engagement. Technology is our friend, a connector, not a divider. Used in appropriate ways, a more inclusive and equitable society awaits us.