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Opinion piece: My experiences so far of hybrid working at the PCPH department

guest blogger4 October 2021

Dr Sarah Griffiths, Senior Research Fellow and Study Manager of
PriDem: Best practice in primary care led dementia support

In this blog, Sarah Griffiths discusses her experiences of beginning the hybrid working at the PCPH department.

Emily Spencer (Research assistant, PriDem) and I have started coming into the department for two days a week.  We have been together in the office twice so far and have seen benefits. Both being new to UCL, it has been an important step in starting to feel a sense of belonging to a department. I think being in-person for some of the time is enhancing the development of an effective working relationship. At the start of each week, we plan weekly goals and have started to prioritise tasks that would work best in-person for office days. Enjoying everyday conversation just for the sake of it, without this being a prelude to a meeting has been a novelty, and the potential for using bodily movement for ‘acting out’ anecdotes or being unaware of what our faces are doing, has created a much-missed sense of communicative freedom. Going for coffee together, airing thoughts as they occur and having spontaneous discussions (rather than having to compose them in an email or wait until the next Teams meeting), are all great benefits of hybrid working and breed creativity. It can also be easier to read and respond to people’s emotions when in person and there is nothing like a co-present giggle for enhancing well-being.

It is early days, and there haven’t been many people around in the department yet, but some chance meetings in the kitchen and corridor have led to spontaneous conversations with new people and a chance to connect with the wider team.

Before the pandemic I loved rare WFH days. To me they were luxury; a chance to switch off distractions and ‘get in the flow’, with all the benefits of being able to get washing done, cuddle the dog and eat whole packets of biscuits unobserved. However, since this became the norm, the enjoyment has gradually faded for me. I’m fortunate that I can find space to work, away from family members, and I don’t have children living at home. Even so, at times I’ve felt trapped by lack of variety. Like many people I’ve been super productive, but have often worked crazy hours, due to a lack of natural breaks to travel to/from work, and no escape from the ‘workplace’.

I live in Cornwall! It takes me three and a half hours to get to London and I’m lucky because I have accommodation when I am there. I am working out ways of working on a train when the internet is poor, saving tasks for travel times that don’t require online connection. Having a snooze and recharging my batteries has also been on my to-do list.  I have noticed that coming back to Cornwall after my London stint has led to appreciating and enjoying home working all over again.

However, there are issues to overcome to optimise the hybrid working experience, and everyone’s situation is unique. Although currently Emily and I have started fulfilling the UCL guidance of aiming for 40% embodiment, this guidance is somewhat ambiguous and has been variously interpreted. It will not be possible in the literal sense once recruitment starts. Our working practices will vary week to week, in terms of where we need to be and how we approach interactions. Some research activities will be in-person and some remote. However, the challenges of background noise and confidentiality mean remote activity will not necessarily work when carried out in a shared office. We are going to have to negotiate how we do this, building in flexibility and ensuring that we have the right equipment and office ventilation. Headphones and suitable microphones can help with confidentiality and researchers keeping their own vocal volume to a minimum, although many of our participants will have reduced hearing and/or find background noise highly distracting.  The current requirement to wear masks in shared offices adds to the challenge of video calls, especially as people living with dementia and those with hearing difficulties gain communication support from seeing people’s faces.

These challenges have led us discuss future arrangements for hybrid working within our team. The 40% embodiment guidance includes discussing individual circumstances with line managers. We hope that this can be highly flexible, with clearer guidance around managers using discretion and trust; monitoring how well research staff are engaging in remote versus in-person working. Importantly, this will entail balancing efficiency with wellbeing and maintaining a sense of belonging. Fatigue is one to keep an eye on as people return to the world of commuting. Depending on the person, the team and the tasks at hand, researchers may want to be embodied for a whole week at time, but then balance this with a week of working from home. I hope that we can continue this conversation about how we enter the new phase of hybrid working.

Developing educational leadership skills as an early career academic

guest blogger28 September 2021

By Megan Armstrong, on 24 September 2021

Dr Danielle Nimmons, GP and NIHR In-Practice Fellow

I am a GP, researcher and educationalist at UCL and I thought I would document some of the milestones in my early academic development. As part of my training I was fortunate to be awarded an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship (ACF), which has been an amazing opportunity to develop my research and teaching skills.

My research has included studies on frailty, dementia and Parkinson’s, for example conducting reviews. However, I knew at the start of my ACF that as well as research, I wanted to gain teaching experience and achieve outputs, such as accreditation as Fellow of the Higher Education Academy / HE Advance (FHEA). At UCL we are very fortunate to be encouraged to develop both research and educational skills. Below I outline the main teaching I was involved in, what I got out of it and suggestions/tips for others who may be interested in developing educational leadership skills as an early career academic.

Teaching experience at UCL

As a GP registrar in my 3rd year (ST3) I became a module lead for Preparation for Practice (PfP), part of the Year 4 MBBS programme. My roles included designing simulated patient cases for the students, direct teaching, supporting other GP tutors and administration staff, course evaluation and quality assurance. I also led the transition from face-to-face delivery to online as Covid hit, developing recorded (asynchronous) and live webinar (synchronous) material.

In my 4th year of training  (ST4) I decided to get experience of small group teaching in my GP practice as a Medicine in the Community (MIC) tutor, for two UCL medical students over the academic year. Students spent 10 days in my GP practice in total, and I got to see them improve clinically while I gained personal tutoring skills. Sessions included an interactive workshop on a disease /condition, formative assessment in the shape of MCQs, role play and patient interactions between students and my NHS patients who gave up their time to help.

What I got out of it

I love teaching and find it incredibly rewarding! The variety of teaching experiences helped break up my academic time and focus when working on different project. These experiences included:

  • Face to face teaching,
  • Online teaching,
  • Developing teaching material,
  • Evaluation teaching activities and
  • Quality assurance

These experiences also contributed to my successful fellowship applications and being awarded a UCL Excellence in Medical Education award (EMEA) (see here).

I was also fortunate to get some outputs, including presentations, awards and publications: Medical student mentoring programs: current insights and The UCL ‘Preparation for Practice’ teaching programme. 

Reflections

Balancing GP training (exams and completing my compulsory training portfolio), research and teaching can be challenging, at times I definitely felt like I was juggling many balls and just about managing not to drop any! The extra academic day in my 4th year helped but only because I taught less on the PfP programme, which gave me more time do practice based (MIC) teaching. Having boundaries and recognising when my plate was full also helped. For example, during my final GP (MRCGP) exams I tried not to do too much else.

Teaching was most enjoyable when I linked it to my research. This included selecting patients from under-represented groups for students to interact with in their GP teaching sessions, which complemented my clinical research project exploring how people from under-represented groups self-manage Parkinson’s disease. As my teaching was informed by the research I was doing, it also saved time when it came to lesson planning.

Finally, most of my academic time was during the pandemic and teaching not only helped me network with other academics within the department but also with hospital registrars doing acute medicine and acting as teaching fellows, academic pharmacists and academic clinicians from a range of specialties based at the medical school main campus.

Tips

Tips for other early career academics:

  1. Say ‘Yes’ to opportunities
  2. Recognise limitations; i.e., Time! It is impossible to do everything but you can make a real impact to programmes if you focus on a select few.
  3. Look for a variety of educational experiences. For example, online vs in person teaching, design teaching vs evaluation
  4. Try and get some outputs, e.g., presentations, higher education fellowships like the FHEA
  5. Link it to your research!
  6. Discuss with current ACFs and module leads to get an idea of what is best for you.

I would encourage all early career academics to gain teaching experience and hope this has inspired some to do so!

References

  1. Nimmons D, Hatter L, Davies N, Sampson EL, Walters K, Schrag A. Experiences of advance care planning in Parkinson’s disease and atypical parkinsonian disorders: a mixed methods systematic review. Eur J Neurol. 2020 Oct;27(10):1971-1987. doi: 10.1111/ene.14424. Epub 2020 Jul 30. PMID: 32603525.
  2. Nimmons D, Giny S, Rosenthal J. Medical student mentoring programs: current insights. Adv Med Educ Pract. 2019 Mar 4;10:113-123. doi: 10.2147/AMEP.S154974. PMID: 30881173; PMCID: PMC6404673.
  3. Nimmons D, Jones MM. The UCL ‘Preparation for Practice’ teaching programme. Med Educ. 2020 Nov;54(11):1077-1078. doi: 10.1111/medu.14326. Epub 2020 Sep 3. PMID: 32885435.