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TUTOR is a one-year training programme in interdisciplinary research in primary health care in Canada. Over the last few years, the NIHR School for Primary Care Research (SPCR) has been allocated places on the programme and has selected UK-based researchers to participate in this unique training. This year, the SPCR was allocated two places, and we were very pleased to find out that we had both been selected to participate in the programme.

The details of the programme and what it entails are well described on the in blogs written by TUTOR alumni on the TUTOR-PHC site, and on the Canadian TUTOR-PHC website.

Every year the programme starts in spring with a week-long symposium to allow all trainees and mentors to meet and get to know each other, and then it continues online for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s symposium also had to be delivered fully online. So in the rest of this blog, we’re going to reflect on our experience of participating in the symposium online and on some of the main things we have taken from it.

Tutor 2020

Online symposiums can work, and work well

We were both pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to interact online, even with people we didn’t know. The course facilitators did a fantastic job of keeping us to time, and by moving smaller groups into breakout areas, helped maintain the flow of conversation. Having a timer counting down the seconds before the breakout area closes certainly helps to focus the mind.

We can learn from our international colleagues

Healthcare systems in Canada and the UK face many similar challenges: service fragmentation, rural vs urban health inequalities, and meeting the needs of ageing populations. These complex challenges require international sharing and learning, as well as an interdisciplinary approach. Based on our experiences of the online symposium so far, it is now easier than ever to initiate and maintain these relationships.

Understand the lingo

We are easily at risk of taking our disciplinary jargon for granted, and the symposium provided a great opportunity to revisit the commonly used terminology. For example, it was interesting to learn about the all-encompassing definitions of primary health care beyond the ‘first level of contact/care’, explore the differences between multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary research, and learn about the historical roots and scope of concepts such as knowledge translation, co-production and participatory research.  

Think about what you can bring to an interdisciplinary team

It was great to hear about our fellow TUTOR trainees’ research interests and strengths. They have a diverse range of healthcare research backgrounds (cardiologists, pharmacists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, GPs, social workers, dentists, nurses and epidemiologists).  We were encouraged to think about what our interests and strengths are and what we can bring to an interdisciplinary team.  

There’s nothing like hands on experience when it comes to writing grants

Having the opportunity to get advice from experts in grant writing has been a highlight of the SPCR trainee weekends. TUTOR has been a great opportunity to use some of these tips and gain hands on experience of working on a grant proposal with other trainees – brainstorming ideas, narrowing down research questions, and negotiating with peers. We were both amazed by how much progress we made over just three hours of online discussions.

Embrace failure and the incremental world view

Not all grants can be funded, and not all journal articles/conference abstracts will end up where we think they belong. But our TUTOR mentors encouraged us to think about these failures as feedback, and an opportunity to make the next submission stronger. These ‘setbacks’ can be used to identify areas for improvement: writing, for example, is an incremental skill, with no upper limit.

Step back and think about the big picture

It’s all too easy to become focussed on your work and forget about the big picture: why do we do primary healthcare research? How will it lead to real improvements to people’s lives? These questions can help us to think about how other disciplines might answer the problem, about how patients and the public might help to shape our approach, and also about how evidence can be put to use in the real world.

Face-to-face interaction was something we missed

Following a short ice-breaker session we now have many book and film recommendations to work through!  We were sad to not be able to socialise more and meet people face to face. The TUTOR facilitators have now organised more informal chat sessions over the year and we look forward to getting to know our fellow trainees a little better!

Final thoughts

As in previous years, TUTOR continues online and it will be interesting to see how our ideas and relationships develop over the year. The programme provides an opportunity for mentoring from a selected TUTOR mentor. This is particularly interesting given the international perspective, and we are both really looking forward to seeing how this unfolds over the course of the programme.