Democratising capacity strengthening in research and practice

This week, we celebrate the theme of capacity building in research and practice, as Dr Erica Frank, founder of NextGenU, an online innovation in capacity building for health care practice, takes part in MHIN’s first webcast on Tuesday at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. This ties in nicely with another event happening at the school; its annual symposium. An opportunity for the school’s researchers, partners and collaborators based here in London and across the world to share their experiences on implementing research to improve health worldwide; this year’s theme is strengthening research capacity.

NextGenU is concerned with strengthening capacity, and with building communities online, but its focus is not only on research, but also heavily on practice. Essentially the world’s first free university, and now being used in 118 countries, the initiative offers a DOOHICHE (a “doohickey” or “gadget”): a Democratically-Open, Outstanding Hybrid of Internet-aided, Computer-aided and Human-aided Education. What this translates to as a resource, is a growing series of online training courses in health sciences, accredited through university partners, spanning from undergraduate health sciences training through post-graduate and continuing medical education, and master’s level training in public health.

Through E Data-K, a mental health focused innovation harnessing one of these online training courses, Next-Gen U is doing a number of exciting things. Firstly, as with all its courses, the initiative is democratising education. Opening up opportunities to learn across boundaries and at no cost to the user is quite a feat. Developing a system which is accredited, and provides access to mentor and peer support even more so. Secondly, it’s partnering with research institutions and the Ministry of Health in Kenya to test an approach to delivering low cost, supported training for primary care practitioners to develop their skills in screening for alcohol and substance use disorders in primary care. And it’s doing this at a large scale: by the end of this three year programme to test the impact of a screening and brief intervention for alcohol use, it will be used by 10,000 Sudanese Family Medicine Residents. And thirdly, it’s drawing upon existing evidence-based approaches developed specifically to support scale up of mental health and substance use services in low and middle income countries, including WHO’s mhGAP programme.

You can find out more about this webcast, and take part or listen again through the site, and you can help to develop MHIN’s community of practice by joining up and adding your perspectives to the discussion.   

Virtual collaboration

Members of the MHIN team will be at both these events to learn more from Erica’s webinar, and researchers at the school and further afield during the symposium. We’ll be listening keenly to others’ experiences of developing communities of practice to foster capacity in research and practice. What we’ll be most interested in, is how this is working online. Through, MHIN aims to foster and support an online community for researchers, practitioners, policy makers, advocates and educators to share what works in mental health, and get it scaled up.

We are online because we recognise that increasingly, meaningful collaboration in health research is global, and aided by the internet. Virtual collaboration and learning also provides access to resources where there may previously have been none. Improving access to research online is not that new. Take as an example, WHO’s Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative, or HINARI. Operational for over 12 years, it offers free access to over 1500 journals to researchers working in eligible institutions in countries on the UN least developed country list, or with a Human Development Index (HDI) or Gross National Income (GNI) under a specific threshold. But it’s essentially a database, and while it provides access to vital research, it doesn’t provide that additional level of interaction around key research.

Learning from others

So can this interaction really help to build capacity?  There are a number of examples out there of innovative communities of practice, capitalising on the internet and working across global health and within mental health specifically. A good example is the Global Health Network (GHN). It’s an online global heath ‘toolkit’, enabling research by sharing knowledge, and providing access to researchers across the world. GHN provides innovative services including a matching service for researchers and research projects, access to tools and skills and support to professional development. Through specialist portals such as Concise; a specialist area for influenza research, which, as an example, supports researchers to share open access protocols for use and adaptation to new contexts, substantially increasing the utility of this knowledge.

Then there’s the Mental Elf, a UK-based online service providing succinct summaries of new research in mental health as daily blogs, distributing these to wide audiences through social media. It nurtures a growing community of contributors, drawn from research, education and practice, encourages discussion within its readership through Twitter and Facebook and makes sure it responds to needs by regularly surveying its audience. 

The Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Network (MHPSS) was born out of a need for effective networking for response between those working across the world in the field of psychosocial support in emergencies and situations of adversity. As it’s grown, it’s expanded to offer regionally tailored services to its members, recognising the need for localised coordination and support. MHPSS hosts a great number of forums, set up and driven by its members. They use these spaces to share resources and quickly mobilise activity and members in response to emergencies. MHPSS is a highly active platform, its members generating and sharing knowledge widely within the network.

These initiatives are exciting for several reasons. They have grown organically, responding to the needs of their users, adding functionality and benefits, and expanding to provide support to new fields and new members. Any good community of practice is democratic. It operates without hierarchy, with benefit to all, and it develops based on the behaviours of its users. Of course this practice has to be supported and nurtured, but its evolution should be in response to need.


Training, education and capacity building
Alcohol/drug use disorders
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