Children's Health Scotland share the swift action taken by their organisation to adapt to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges to our lives, including the way that we work. Providing face to face support for children, young people and families is at the core of what we do at Children’s Health Scotland.

As COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, we de-camped to our makeshift home offices had to abruptly call our Self-Management Service (SMS) face to face workshops for children and young people (CYP) living with long-term health conditions to a halt. We spoke to families by phone to hear their experiences and share these with policy makers, and we faced a growing waiting list of CYP requesting our services. We were at a crossroads. CYP were feeling increasingly isolated and lonely and experiencing challenges, yet we were unable to deliver support in the way we normally would.

We knew we needed to act quickly but were mindful that this was a new direction for us. Did we have the resources and skills to adapt to online support? Would CYP want to engage online? Could we still meet their needs?

We were fortunate to receive a grant from the Scottish Government Wellbeing Fund to adapt our SMS to digital delivery; and we set ourselves a challenge to get this up and running within three weeks to provide much needed support to CYP over the summer holidays.

We virtually put our heads together to consider how we could make group sessions fun, engaging and supportive. How long would CYP want to come online? Did they have access to a device/internet? What kind of activities and topics would they like to cover? We carried out surveys and interviews to hear from CYP directly and the results shaped our plans. We also identified ‘peer mentors’ to work closely with us. Our two-and-a-half-hour face to face sessions transformed into a multi-component, interactive programme with short online sessions, home challenges and discussion boards spread across the week. SMS:CONNECT was born!

Next, we needed an online platform that would be functional, accessible to children with different devices and technical skills, and above all – safe. We worked with a fantastic company called Digital Bricks (this link will take you away from our website) who utilised Moodle to create a secure space where CYP could find a link to our online group sessions, access information and resources, and connect with one another.

A whirlwind of promotion, referrals and recruitment followed. Rather than putting leaflets and posters in hospitals, we were sending out e-flyers and having virtual ‘home visits.’ Without the normal level of contact and engagement, we worked hard to develop programme materials and ‘home packs’ to motivate and enthuse participants for the sessions. We allocated ‘Coaches’ to each CYP to try and build that relationship that we worried would be lacking when interacting online. We had welcome sessions and ‘virtual tours’ of the platform to tease out issues around technology and provide support where needed, and we built in some flexibility to session plans to allow us to respond to areas of interests or concern raised by the groups.

The moment of truth. Would anyone want to take part? I am relieved and proud to say a resounding YES! We quickly filled (and oversubscribed!) our age 10-12 and 13-17 Programmes and found CYP willing and excited to take part. Some even reported that they would prefer to meet others online than in person. We have now completed four SMS:CONNECT Programmes supporting over 40 CYP with an over 80% retention rate.

Although there have been many challenges along the way, including internet connection issues and establishing new safeguarding procedures, we have been pleasantly surprised by the unexpected positives to our new way of working. We’ve found that bringing the technology to the forefront, such as using the camera and chat box to play games and interact, can help view them as valuable rather than barriers. CYP didn’t report any ‘digital fatigue’ and seemed to like opportunities to build their digital skills.
Although we firmly believe in the value of face to face support, we absolutely see a place for this programme going forward. We have been able to reach different groups of CYP (including those shielding or unwell) and extend beyond geographical boundaries. It has also kickstarted our plans to develop a way for CYP to continue to engage with one another once they have completed a programme. This scary challenge has actually opened up a world of possibilities and we are excited to develop SMS:CONNECT and embrace technology for other services at Children’s Health Scotland.

We are immensely proud of the team for developing and delivering SMS:CONNECT in such a short timeframe. We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from CYP, parents/carers and health professionals, and our challenge now is to secure funding to continue provision nationally alongside our ‘traditional’ services.
If you would like to hear more about SMS:CONNECT or our experiences delivering support online, please contact Dr Laura Smith, Head of Children’s Health and Wellbeing Services:

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