22 July 2021.

With much of the Australian population now in lockdown, some kinds of public health research become harder than others. Qualitative research often involves in-person interviews and can rely on researchers establishing a good rapport with their interviewees – all things that tend to be more difficult when you switch to videoconferencing tools such as Zoom or Skype. 

Seven researchers from the University of Tasmania faced with this difficulty have published a rapid review of the recent literature on the strengths and limits of videoconferencing in qualitative research. While their review suggests that zooming can work well and even provides benefits – such as cost-effectiveness and access to disparate populations – the researchers also identify five key challenges:

From tech fails to privacy issues, videoconferencing poses various challenges for health reserachers.

Building rapport

Establishing a good rapport with an interviewee is critical to developing good qualitative data. Researchers often rely on their ability to read a person’s emotions through their gestures and facial expressions – but this becomes a lot more difficult when confronted with a poorly lit, pixelated version of your interviewee in the unnatural circumstances of a Zoom call. The review offers some tips on how to improve rapport, such as varying eye contact; using props (such as food or drink) to mirror a real-life interaction; or using a familiar environment to conduct your Zoom – such as a messy desk, rather than a boardroom.

Technical challenges

By now, we’re probably all familiar with the potential for tech fails in Zoom calls. These can be particularly debilitating in qualitative public health research, where researchers may be dealing with already vulnerable populations. The review suggests minimising technical risk by supporting familiarity with videoconferencing system; providing emotional and technical support (including on site); training for participants; telephone backup; and use of laptops/PCs rather than mobile devices or tablets. Providing written or video instructions or a checklist outlining common technical difficulties and solutions are also useful, as are practice and rehearsals.

Planning

Proper planning and coordinated scheduling is critical, as is establishing clear ‘house rules’ for videoconferencing encounters. These should encompass ethical guidelines for research, internet providers’ acceptable use policies and relevant privacy laws. The role of the facilitator is also important in ensuring good quality data by minimising cross-talk and allowing everyone to have their turn.

Privacy

There are particular privacy issues using videoconferencing: ‘Zoom bombing’, for example, is when an unknown person gains access to a Zoom meeting. It’s important to use appropriate consent methods (a form or script) before or at the start of session and make sure you confirm verbal consent to recording the session. Let participants know when the recording starts and that they can opt out at any time.

Equity

And finally, there’s the issue of equity: the way you resolve all the above issues must ensure equity of knowledge, skills and confidence as well as access to the technology. Provide your participants with the equipment they need and the knowledge they need to operate it. Direct, frequent, and long-term interactions with participants can reduce the power inequity between the researcher and participant.

The rapid review is published by Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute. You can access it in full here.