Communities of Practice – Going Virtual and Health Education

Dr Kunal Patel 26 Sep 2018

Image courtesy of John Conway

The word ‘community’ gets used quite frequently. Now so to the point that anyone working for a business with social media expertise, if there is such a thing, can often be referred to as a ‘community manager’. Sadly, this can take away from the importance of the word 'community' in general, but also in learning and education terms.

The word does have varied meanings ranging from people of a district or country considered collectively to the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common and its an amalgamation of these two meanings that lean more toward the definition of a community of practice. A clear definition of a community of practice is as follows:

“where a group of individuals with common interests come together to collaborate, can facilitate information sharing and knowledge translation as well as sharing best practices and building professional and interprofessional capacity”

Taking this definition and placing in the context of our current failure to educate and train adequate numbers of health workers for the achievement of Universal Health Coverage plus increased collaboration and Interprofessional Education (IPE) forms the basis of a recent paper iheed contributed to.

Mcloughlin et al conducted a review and thematic analysis of the use and delivery of Virtual communities of practice (VCoPs). A search from the years 2000 to 2016 and screening based on quality and focus revealed a total of 19 articles. Using a thematic approach, the authors analysed each abstracted text to generate key issues and themes. With the growth of technology, the transition of communities of practice in the virtual space is increasing, however, this timely review highlights some important learning points.

Due to the ability of social media, forums and more online to facilitate two-way communication, VCoPs can be considered as a useful vehicle for IPE and IPC, especially for those working in remote or rural areas. Social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can provide some technical infrastructure, however, custom learning environments can also provide an efficient virtual space. Understandably, very useful for any health worker. This review identified key articles and broke them down thematically, providing some key insight going forward.

Issues such as technological infrastructure, participation, trust and privacy and technical ability are key to any VCoP, but if utilized correctly can provide a safe environment for learning and afford the opportunity for professionals to engage in IPE and IPC activities on a virtual basis. This allows for the overcoming of geographic barriers and/or time limitations and improving isolation. It was interesting to find that VCoPs can provide a ‘risk-free environment’ for members which can encourage active participation, breaking down traditional professional barriers to the development of IPE and Interprofessional Collaboration (IPC) activities. However more regulation and participation need to be encouraged.

Ultimately, by only identifying a core set of papers, it is clear more research must be done in this emerging, yet very important aspect of learning, collaboration and IPE. Additionally, the issues identified are essential for any development of a virtual community, such as those in digital health, learning and health education environments. They must be looked at and worked upon if we are to achieve better health education that is technology driven.