COVID-19 has completely changed the way we live our daily lives and most definitely, has impacted the way research is being conducted. Over the summer, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to complete a six-week remote internship on atrial fibrillation screening with the Primary Care Unit at the University of Cambridge funded by the NIHR School for Primary Care Research. In addition to being my first venture into primary care research, this internship was also a completely novel experience in terms of working remotely and delivering presentations over video meetings. I worked with the SAFER (Screening for Atrial Fibrillation with ECG to Reduce stroke) study team and my main role involved analysing data collected from the SAFER feasibility study to evaluate the efficiency of using an automatic algorithm to stratify ECGs to assist the detection of Atrial Fibrillation. I am very grateful to the entire SAFER study team for making this internship possible and to my supervisor, Dr Peter Charlton, for his consistent guidance throughout the project.
During my internship, I was introduced to the concept of patient and public involvement (PPI) in research. Reading up about the rationale behind conducting PPI meetings highlighted to me their importance in keeping research patient-oriented and gaining fresh perspectives from the point of view of patients who might be on the receiving end of changes effected by the research output. I realised this is especially pertinent in primary care research given the relatively large quantity of patients that access primary care as opposed to secondary or tertiary care services.
Subsequently, I got the chance to participate in a PPI meeting as part of my internship, where I presented an overview of the SAFER study and sought to garner feedback from the PPI contributors regarding their thoughts on usage of a computer programme in diagnosis and the ease of use of a single-lead ECG device for home monitoring. Among several points raised by the PPI contributors, one of the comments that stood out to me was pertaining to whether the ECG recording devices used in the study would be commercially available if patients wanted to purchase one for themselves and the associated cost. This spurred me to reflect on the very purpose of conducting a pilot study on implementing a national systematic screening programme, reiterating the benefits it would offer by minimising health inequalities that may arise from affordability of commercial ECG screening devices. In addition to increasing my awareness of patient perspectives, presenting at a PPI meeting allowed me to gain experience in communicating research in lay terms without using excessive jargon, which was tremendously helpful towards my own understanding of the project and its aims. While participating in a PPI meeting over Zoom came with its own set of unique challenges, such as effectively interacting with the audience during the presentation to gauge public awareness of certain medical terms (e.g. how much a lay person knows about what atrial fibrillation is), it was an invaluable learning experience. Not only did I gain novel insights from the PPI contributors on atrial fibrillation screening and its implementation, I also developed a more thorough understanding of the study and its implications in the grand scheme of things.