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Case study: "I've never been so busy!" - Debbie's experience as a Research Champion during the COVID-19 pandemic

Debbie, from Nottingham, has been involved in research since taking part in a study for the first time in the 1990s. In her capacity as a Research Champion, she works with a number of different groups and organisations to provide her input and make sure that patients and members of the public are given a voice. Here, we explore Debbie’s experience as a Research Champion during the COVID-19 pandemic…

“I’ve never been so busy!” Debbie says of her experience as a Research Champion during the pandemic. In addition to her role as a Research Champion with NIHR CRN East Midlands, Debbie works closely with MindTech at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham, sits on a working group that is exploring the relationship between hearing and mental health, and works with a number of additional local, regional and national organisations.

Debbie is involved in a project with the national charity Mind, where she chairs a working group on healthy exercise and mental health. “It’s been challenging at times because it ties into my own personal experience,” she says, “but it has been a great opportunity and particularly relevant during the pandemic where both physical and mental health have been so important.”

The project has included promotion via social media, online chats to identify people with the right experiences to be involved, and the delivery of webinars. “As this is a project across the whole country, we’ve really benefited from the ways that digital tools let us work together at a time when we couldn’t see other people,” Debbie explains.

There are also a number of different projects across the East Midlands that Debbie has been involved in, which have given her opportunities to develop her skills. Debbie sat on a COVID-19 task force led by Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, has been involved in developing training for PPI members, won an NIHR award for her involvement with a risk assessment study, and has delivered lectures and presentations to students.

“It’s been a very busy time and it’s been strange at times to know how to adapt and deliver processes,” she says. “I’ve really enjoyed the range of things I’ve been involved with, from writing blogs to using more digital tools, it’s been a great learning opportunity.”

The pandemic has given Debbie an opportunity to develop her digital skills, but she is keen to ensure that taking advantage of the technological tools available to us does not lead to digital exclusion. “It’s really important that we include all people regardless of their circumstances,” she says. “The digital tools available to us can make participation easier, but we need to make sure that people who aren’t as comfortable using technology are still given the same opportunities to provide their input and insights.”

Debbie has now been active in research for 20 years, and is keen to provide support to those getting involved for the first time. “I want to share my knowledge and experiences,” she explains. “Sometimes people coming in for the first time don’t always know what to expect or how things work, and people like me who have been involved in research for a while have a big role to play in supporting them and making them feel at home.”

Debbie also wants to keep improving the accessibility of research. “I’m working with other public contributors to develop a jargon buster,” she says. “It’s easy to lapse into language that is complicated, so I want to support researchers and professionals and help them make sure that they are using terms that are accessible, so that people don’t feel out of their depth.”

As restrictions are removed, Debbie is looking forward to getting involved in more public facing activities again. “I really enjoy the social side of research,” she adds. “As much as the digital tools we have are great, I’m really looking forward to seeing more people face to face and supporting them to begin their research journeys!”