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Voices from the frontline help fight pandemic

Health workers share experiences via WhatsApp
Photo: Voices from the frontline help fight pandemic
Health workers are being encouraged to share their experiences working on the frontline of COVID-19 via WhatsApp thanks to a smart initiative developed by The Nossal Institute for Global Health and the School of Computing and Information Systems at The University of Melbourne.

The project, Health Worker Voices, will analyse private voice messages of health workers from across Australia and the world to improve health systems and boost resilience and responsiveness for COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Clare Strachan, Principle Advisor, Nossal Institute for Global Health of the University of Melbourne, says the project allows health workers to leave private audio messages or 'stories' about their experiences during COVID-19. 

"We have had contributions from nurses, administrators, doctors and allied health professionals working in a range of settings including intensive care, mental health and aged care, from the tertiary level to the community level," says Ms Strachan.
Health workers are free to share their challenges or successes and will only be asked basic demographic information by the app to protect privacy.

"We do not capture data related to their specific facilities and will not report this even if this information is provided by health workers in their audio stories in accordance with our privacy policy.

"They will be asked to provide a little bit of demographic information about the type of work they do but nothing that will individually identify them.

"It is important to emphasise that all communication on Health Worker Voices is private and between the automated WhatsApp channel and the health worker. We cannot and will never identify health workers," says Ms Strachan.

The project will be ongoing so far as it is progressing understanding of health worker experience and the epidemic at large.

"We aim to continue …as long as the data contributes to improving the responsiveness of health systems during the current epidemic as well as building resilience and responsiveness to future challenges."

Health workers report feeling comfortable elaborating on their experiences, which will help collate lessons to improve health systems.

"We hope they will also find the experience of sharing their thoughts cathartic in the face of the significant challenges and pressures many of them are experiencing."

Dr Stephen Parnis, former Vice-President of the Australian Medical Association, endorses Health Worker Voices.

"Stephen has suggested that capturing stories from health workers is essential during the COVID-19 pandemic and Health Worker Voices is an excellent medium through which to do this," says Ms Strachan

Capturing the insights of health workers as the COVID-19 pandemic develops is important and novel.

"Historically, it has been more feasible to collect the reflections of health workers post-event, but these narratives often miss the nuanced perspectives that can only come during a challenge.

"We most recently learnt this lesson from the West African Ebola pandemic.

"Insights from health workers enabled health systems to appreciate the importance of localised responses and decision making."

The technology to capture insights in real-time means health worker stories are collated for analysis based on the most important themes that emerge from the data, says Ms Strachan.

"The enduring value of Health Worker Voices will, we suspect, be to generate an archive of first-person testimony about the most important issues for health workers, COVID challenged health systems and the people that work within them in complex ways."

An intensive care nurse demonstrates the nuanced insight Health Worker Voices has been set up to capture in the following WhatsApp story.

"We're very busy at the moment … we're currently experiencing a big demand for beds. The COVID patients that we've got, some of them are very, very sick.

"Some are being discharged, which is really good. So, they're surviving, and they're going onto the ward.

"It also feels like now that we're getting quite busy, you can see the management team.

"I'm a bedside nurse. I'm not in the job of managing beds or anything, but you can see they're getting quite stressed …

"We're quickly trying to push patients out that could go to the ward so that we can get more patients in. And this is really, you know, this is hard work for us. To be rushing around … to get them ready to go to the ward.

"And there's a bit of a feeling I think, from a nursing perspective, that we're just numbers. You know that we're not. We're not. Yeah, we're just there to do a job so that we can get more patients, see?

"I guess there's a lot of pressure on us, and it's very tiring and challenging to get breaks in and so on.

"We've had, you know, young people that have had car accidents or motorbike accidents or attempted suicides, and normally the family would rush to be there and be with those people.

"You know that their parents… they want to be there at the bedside, but they just can't. And that's really, really hard. I think that somehow that goes against a parent - that goes against your instinct altogether, to be with your child if they've been hurt. So, I think that's been a really, really hard part of the restrictions."
(42-year-old, female intensive care nurse, Australia)

Access Health Worker Voices WhatsApp channel

Simply follow this link on a smartphone to go to the Health Workers Voices WhatsApp channel.

Alternatively, visit the Health Worker Voices website to connect to the channel. Once opened, text 'hello' and the process is self-explanatory.

There is a request to press the microphone button in WhatsApp and speak into the phone.

There is also a how-to video to guide health workers through the process.

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.