Background: Good General Practice is essential for an effective health system. Good General Practice training is essential to sustain the workforce, however training for General Practice can be hampered by a number of pressures, including professional, structural and social isolation. General Practice trainees may be under more pressure than fully registered General Practitioners, and yet isolation can lead doctors to reduce hours and move away from rural practice. Virtual communities of practice (VCoPs) in business have been shown to be effective in improving knowledge sharing, thus reducing professional and structural isolation. This literature review will critically examine the current evidence relevant to virtual communities of practice in General Practice training, identify evidence-based principles that might guide their construction and suggest further avenues for research.
Methods: Major online databases Scopus, Psychlit and Pubmed were searched for the terms "Community of Practice" (CoP) AND (Online OR Virtual OR Electronic) AND (health OR healthcare OR medicine OR "Allied Health"). Only peer-reviewed journal articles in English were selected. A total of 76 articles were identified, with 23 meeting the inclusion criteria. There were no studies on CoP or VCoP in General Practice training. The review was structured using a framework of six themes for establishing communities of practice, derived from a key study from the business literature. This framework has been used to analyse the literature to determine whether similar themes are present in the health literature and to identify evidence in support of virtual communities of practice for General Practice training.
Results: The framework developed by Probst is mirrored in the health literature, albeit with some variations. In particular the roles of facilitator or moderator and leader whilst overlapping, are different. VCoPs are usually collaborations between stakeholders rather than single company VCoPs. Specific goals are important, but in specialised health fields sometimes less important than in business. Boundary spanning can involve the interactions of different professional groups, as well as using external experts seen in business VCoPs. There was less use of measurement in health VCoPs. Environments must be supportive as well as risk free. Additional findings were that ease of use of technology is paramount and it is desirable for VCoPs to blend online and face-to-face involvement.
Conclusions: The business themes of leadership, sponsorship, objectives and goals, boundary spanning, risk-free environment and measurements become, in the health literature, facilitation, champion and support, objectives and goals, a broad church, supportive environment, measurement benchmarking and feedback, and technology and community.General Practice training is under pressure from isolation and virtual communities of practice may be a way of overcoming isolation. The health literature supports, with some variation, the business CoP framework developed by Probst. Further research is needed to clarify whether this framework is an effective method of health VCoP development and if these VCoPs overcome isolation and thus improve rural retention of General Practice registrars.