Testing the limits

As the pandemic began to unfold in spring last year, Professor Peter Buckle, Principal Research Fellow at Imperial College’s Department of Medicine, was called on as part of efforts to develop a test for Covid-19. Here, he explains how the human factors community came together to rise to the challenge of identifying a rapid and reliable solution while working under huge pressure through an unprecedented situation. You can read the full version of this article in the new issue of The Ergonomist.

“In April last year, the Imperial in-vitro diagnostics team was suddenly told to pause research on many of our other initiatives and focus, not surprisingly, on Covid testing. The human factors challenges quickly emerged, as did the extended knowledge base needed to understand the disease and its detection.

Having taught epidemiology for 25 years at a postgraduate level, I at least felt comfortable with most of the concepts required. On the human factors side, I felt we might need to harness skills worldwide. A hastily set up LinkedIn group recruited over 300 people in a week, testimony to the desire of the global human factors community to help. A national network for evaluation of Covid tests, ‘CONDOR’, soon followed and suddenly we were plunged into the most extraordinary rollercoaster of a research ride.

New candidate tests for an entirely novel disease sprung up everywhere. Evaluation and procurement emergency committees screamed out for evidence. SAGE groups were modelling the course of the pandemic without hard data. ‘Test and trace’ initiatives without adequate testing of the population was a non-starter and everything the scientists did was “too slow”. The political pressure was, and still is, intense. 

Our human factors team soon learned that streamlining our methods and running remote studies was imperative. Ensuring they were ‘valid’ became a major challenge. Expert review panels, patient public engagement and clinical stakeholder evaluation studies were launched, papers and reports to the decision-making committees in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and in government were prepared at weekends. Research time scales went from years to months, then to weeks and finally days. Nevertheless, our human factors systems approach stood up well to these pressures.

The CONDOR network brought together the very best of diagnostic researchers, clinicians and patient and public representatives across five prestigious universities and others beyond. Between us the traditional inter-university ‘competition’ rapidly fell away, enabling true collegiate, scientific collaboration to shine through.” 

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