People in Health West of England (PHWE) has launched Discourse, an online platform to enable public involvement in health research in a more modern and inclusive way.

PHWE is the West of England’s regional public involvement network, supporting NIHR Bristol Biomedical Research Centre and others in the region to embed effective, best practice public involvement in their research. PHWE worked with John Kellas of This Equals, a tech and digital specialist company, to develop the platform.

Traditionally, involvement has happened through face-to-face meetings, emails and phone calls. While spaces such as Facebook and WhatsApp groups offer forum spaces for like-minded individuals, there has not been an online forum space tailored for public involvement until now.

Use of online tools to support remote engagement has become essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. But these tools also enable involvement for those who may find it difficult to attend face-to-face meetings, for example people with physical disabilities or who are caring for a loved-one.

Discourse uses open-source software and can host both private and public conversations. It can be configured to meet the needs of a wide variety of projects.

Alan Thomas, a public contributor on the project, said:

“I have found Discourse very easy to use. It allows conversations to develop at times of the contributor’s choosing. This is useful in ’normal’ times, when it’s not always easy to make face-to-face meetings, and even in these ‘abnormal’ times, when contributors often like to think about their comments instead of answering directly during a Zoom meeting! I’ve also been impressed by Discourse’s added functionality, including the ability to have private conversations.”

Andy Gibson, Associate Professor in Public Involvement at the University of the West of England and academic lead for PHWE, added:

“The pandemic has made us all rethink how we stay in touch with each other. Many of us have become very familiar with digital forms of communication that we rarely used in the past.

“To widen and strengthen PHWE’s public involvement we have developed Discourse, a secure online platform that supports people in different circumstances to interact online. This is a unique initiative and one that we feel will greatly strengthen our involvement activities and the diversity of the people we are able to work with.”