Staying in touch despite physical distancing

by Catherine Fraser, Service Development Officer at Your Community Health

One of the things we are really proud of at Your Community Health is our diverse and committed Consumer Advisory Committee. It has consistently provided high quality and thoughtful advice to our organisation over many years, so it was important for us to support Committee members and maintain their input during this pandemic. At the beginning of restrictions, in what seems an age ago now, we committed to finding ways we could continue to meet.

Reaching out and listening to our Consumer Advisory Committee members so we can understand their participation support needs and respond practically is the way we have always worked so, while that was not new, it put us in a great positon to find solutions to new problems together.

In the early stages of restrictions, when we were still trying to fathom what they would mean for us all, our first reaction was to cancel our regular face-to-face meetings out of concern for vulnerable Committee members. Making and communicating this decision was the beginning of many phone calls to check in with and understand how we could support Committee members during the pandemic and work through options and barriers to meeting.

Overwhelmingly people wanted to keep meeting but were also concerned for the health and risks for fellow Committee members. We knew our Committee’s strengths but we had to understand barriers so we could find solutions. The go-to answer for workers was the magic ‘meet online’, but this is easier said than done for many in our community. While some Committee members were already quite the expert, others faced many issues such as:

  • No internet connection
  • No computer or smart phone
  • Limited data/affordability of data
  • Computer literacy and confidence
  • Low confidence or no experience in on-line meetings
  • Higher demand of online conversations (about an hour is long enough)
  • How to include sign interpreting in online meetings
  • How to view meeting papers without blocking signing.

Stretching out of our comfort zones together

In finding ways to succeed, an underlying strength of our Committee has been the willingness of members to put themselves out of their comfort zones and to support each other to try new things. We all worked together on this; constructively sharing knowledge, tips, being patient, empathetic and positive.

What we have made happen is to meet for one hour monthly online, rather than our usual two-hour bi-monthly meeting. This has meant:

  • Some Committee members have got their first computer and set up an internet connection (huge step!)
  • We have assisted Committee members with paying for some top-up data where needed
  • We have worked through (with help from Expression Australia) how to have an Auslan interpreter in the meeting, and how particular meeting participants can ‘pin’ the interpreter
  • We have had many one-to-one practice sessions using the meeting software with concurrent telephone/text conversation to test, trouble-shoot, and build confidence in using the online meeting functions
  • We are posting and emailing all meeting papers well ahead of meetings so we don’t pull documents up on screen, which blocks communication between the sign interpreter and Committee member.

We have turned the corner! At our last meeting members commented on how comfortable and well online meetings were now working, and that being able to see each other’s faces was fantastic. Our Committee has shown us what is possible, rather than what is not.