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FMHS staff and student volunteers keep experts up to date with latest COVID-19 info
Author: Sue Segar
Published: 22/05/2020

​In yet another example of how staff and students from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) at Stellenbosch University are rising to the challenge of COVID-19, a Daily Briefing, initiated by professors in the department of Global Health, has, in a matter of weeks, evolved into a vital document which is now serving many more people than originally intended.

The Daily Briefing – which was the brain child of Dr Brian Allwood, a senior specialist in the Division of Pulmonology – provides a round-up of all the latest statistics and research on the COVID-19 outbreak. Professor René English, who heads the FMHS's Division of Health Systems and Public Health, indicated that the aim of the briefings is primarily to provide critical care clinicians and public health experts with a “one-stop document" with all the latest and relevant information and clinical evidence about the pandemic to help them treat patients effectively and to assist in developing policies based on the most accurate and current data.

The briefings comprise the latest global data, South African data and a range of articles of interest drawn from scientific publications.

The daily compilation of the briefs has become yet another instance of how colleagues at the FMHS and Tygerberg Hospital have responded and collaborated in a time of crisis, and of how medical students have voluntarily joined forces to fight the battle against COVID-19.

English explained how the daily briefings came about, stressing that it has been a collaborative effort based on inspiring team work.

“When COVID-19 hit our shores and Tygerberg Hospital was gearing up to see patients, we as public health academics offered our assistance," English explained. Various role players from both the clinical and academic environments responded to the offer and a meeting was held to determine how best to collaborate.

“There were two broad areas for collaboration – one was on jointly writing research protocols and conducting research, and the second was providing summaries on the latest evidence from peer-reviewed research and key research outputs from scientific literature on a daily basis.

“We immediately started work on the research protocols … but with regard to the daily briefs, we didn't have anyone else immediately to start doing them, so I started doing them," said English.

“I scanned the literature, summarised key research articles on COVID-19 and put together the reviews. Allwood provided a template for how the briefs would look," said English.

Soon the briefs were being sent to a WhatsApp group of clinicians and Global Health colleagues.

Within a few days, English had received a request from medical students who wanted to assist with the briefs.

“So we drew them in too. Medical students Sergio Alves and Nonto Mponda mobilised a group of 15 students. I met with them and gave them the brief and we started collectively putting the brief together.

“Prof Taryn Young, head of the Department of Global Health, ran a training session for the students, which included a refresher on what students must look for when screening for articles.

“Later we also brought in Dr Elizna Maasdorp, who had also volunteered her services, to provide oversight of the morning briefs and she has done an excellent job. We also received wonderful support from Maasdorp's head of department, Prof Gerhard Walzl."

“The feedback was so positive. It was an unintended consequence of the briefs. It was never meant to go beyond the shores of a WhatsApp," said English.

She stressed that their daily briefings were merely summaries of key published research and not an “exact science".

“It was always meant to be quick summary of the latest evidence and the challenge is to maintain the quality of the brief and adhered to evidence-based practices, and critically reflect on the articles before putting them into the brief within a short turnaround time."

The briefs were initially sent to a WhatsApp group comprising clinicians at Tygerberg Hospital and the FMHS. At this stage they are going so far afield that the team is not sure how many people are reading them.

English said the briefs have proven to be a wonderful initiative for the university.

“They are a demonstration of how we as colleagues can pull together, cross the boundaries of academia and clinical medicine and support each other and respond in a time of crisis so as to deliver the best care we can to the patients, as it is actually about the patients at the end of the day," she said.

“It has been truly exceptional to see the response from the students and how they were able to mobilise, and then to see the spinoff."

English said the students involved would like to maintain the briefs going forward. “Even though classes will resume they want to continue and I think they should be lauded and they are very much part of the success of the morning brief."

Allwood said he believes the morning briefs are reaching “probably in the hundreds of doctors" every day.

“We have no idea how far it's going. It's difficult to work out. We are surprised and encouraged that they have been so widely and well received as it means it is filling an important need at the bedside. The collaboration has been phenomenal. Too often in clinical medicine we have worked in our own silos, but this initiative has fostered cross-divisional and cross-departmental collaboration within the University. It would be wonderful if this co-operation could be expanded to the greater university.

“We have massive resources and huge intellectual capital in the greater university that could be put to use on the frontlines."

Caption: Some of the staff and students involved in the compilation of the Daily Briefing.