Social Research in the Age of COVID-19: Methodological Considerations

Dr Jack B. Joyce; Dr Tom Douglass    11.12.20

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the focus, approach and viability of research across disciplines. Our ‘Real Complaints’ project has been no different. Though the viability of our specific qualitative research project has not been challenged, the project has been reshaped by the pandemic methodologically.

Our research has experienced delays beginning data collection due to the lockdown period, the necessity of ethical amendments, and the overwhelming pressure on Health and Social Care (HSC) Trusts in Northern Ireland. After regrouping following the shock of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we used the first lockdown period (late March 2020-June 2020) to strategise and produce a revised, more resilient methodological approach, and seek the necessary ethical approvals for changes to the project.

Capturing the full journey

Due to lockdown and the pressure placed on HSC Trusts (and associated redeployment of their complaints and other staff), we have broadened our sampling approach. Previously we had intended to recruit complainants at the start of the complaints journey. Now we are also recruit existing complainants who are mid-way through their complaints journey. So that we capture the experiences of these existing complainants across their whole journey we are interviewing these complainants twice – adding an interview at the beginning to understand what has occurred in their complaint journey so far. It is also important to note that due to the continued need for social distancing (including, at the time of writing, being unable to enter into the homes of other people in Northern Ireland) interviews with complainants, complaints handlers and relevant medical professionals have been moved to phone or video interview.

Recording from a distance

Lockdown has had a significant impact on the working practices of call handlers at our sites of data collection, as such, we have needed to reconfigure how we record phone calls because we could no longer set recording devices up in person. We first scoped exactly how clients were being serviced, for some trusts this was now in writing only, but for the PCC they were now working from home using VoIP (using their laptop to receive phone calls). Security prevented us from using any third-party applications to record phone calls as these are normally stored on a third-party server (even if they purport not to) thus in breach of our ethics and GDPR. The solution we arrived at was to use an Olympus TP-8 recorder; this device has minimal interference in the call handling process (similar to a re-tell device) yet captures, with sufficient quality, both sides of the phone call. As call handlers are scattered across Northern Ireland it was no longer feasible, or safe to collect recordings from their offices. Instead, we developed a file sharing platform so that call handlers could straightforwardly upload their recordings without seeing recordings made by other call handlers.

Moving forward

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on research projects with many unable to be completed, and others’ scope significantly reduced. Thankfully, we have received support and guidance from our project management and the NIHR, and although our project was impacted, we have limited the severity of that impact by carefully redesigning the project in ways that fulfil the original aims but are sensitive to the present and changing environment. Despite delays in starting data collection, we are now moving forward with recording and enhancing the NHS complaints journey.