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Beyond the outcomes: The benefits of the ‘process’ of doing applied health research

By Rebecca Lawton, Luke Budworth, Beth Fylan and Laura Sheard

Like other research endeavours, applied health research rewards us with new and effective interventions and technologies, a better understanding of phenomena, and evidence-based recommendations for how best to deliver a service. Uniquely, however, applied health research also helps to understand how best to translate interventions, knowledge and recommendations into everyday practice. For anyone who is interested in making a difference to patients, staff, healthcare systems and society, this is an exciting field to work in.

Nevertheless, as researchers, we often fail to consider or evaluate the impact that the process of conducting research has on these same patients, staff and healthcare systems. In this piece we focus on the huge potential that applied health research has to deliver benefits in the process of creating new knowledge. We want to open this debate up and would encourage other applied health researchers to contribute their own experiences of conducting research that made a difference ‘in the doing’.

To tell us about your views on this topic, as a researcher or NHS staff member, please follow link below.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/SNW2WMW

Applied health research per se is undoubtedly beneficial for patients, healthcare staff and organisations. Within institutions with higher versus lower research participation, previous studies have identified improved patient health outcomes (including cancer mortality rates), reduced staff turnover, improved organisational efficiency and increased patient and staff satisfaction (e.g. Harding et al., 2017; Downing et al., 2015; Hanney et al., 2013). There are many potential explanations for these positive effects. For patients, this is often explained by the direct health benefits of exposure to novel interventions or procedures, and for staff, being able to develop their skills and experience. There may, however, be other, more indirect, reasons for these positive outcomes. In this blog, we are interested in those largely unrecognised benefits that funders may never find out about and that rarely, if ever, make their way into the published literature.

The benefits of research interviews

During her PhD, one of our research students reflected on how several of her participants emphasized how significant the interview process was for them, how rarely they had the opportunity to talk about their feelings with a non-judgmental listener and how they appreciated the opportunity to do this while potentially benefitting others. Many people who interview patients will be familiar with this apparent parallel between therapy and research interviews. Indeed, this benefit of the research process has received considerable attention. In 1994, Hutchinson’s review of the literature in this field concluded that catharsis, self-acknowledgement, a sense of purpose and self-awareness were all outcomes for patients associated with involvement in qualitative research.

In our own research on the experiences of staff who have been involved in patient safety events, the benefits for staff of being interviewees has revealed findings consistent with the above literature. Staff have reported that they felt a weight had been lifted, and that being given time to just talk to non-judging individuals who understood patient safety issues was highly cathartic. Indeed, for many, although it was painful, they felt they could now ‘move on’ from the event.

In the above cases, skilled interviewers have, during their work, developed much more than a better understanding of a phenomenon; they have developed a relationship of trust and mutual respect. For us, this is a mark of high quality research that we pay little attention to; often being the subject of a sentence or two in the reflective section of a thesis or manuscript.

And what about the broader benefits for staff of participating in applied health research?

For patients, this question has been investigated and there is now evidence from many studies that patients perceive a multitude of benefits to be associated with research participation, including greater knowledge and awareness of their health/condition, access to treatments or services, pride in taking part, a desire to help others, and the opportunity to talk to someone (c.f. Castillo et al., 2012; Gysels et al., 2008; Tolmie et al., 2004).

The benefits associated with the process of conducting an interview study represent only the tip of the iceberg, however. We recently asked for feedback from our team of 25 staff and PhD students, all engaged in applied health research. Below is a flavour of what they told us about the ways that the research process had benefitted staff and/or the health service involved in their work. Some of these were ideas were based on opinion, others were articulated by healthcare staff during the research process. Let’s be clear: we are absolutely not talking about the outcomes of research here, but what happened while they were collecting data, running co-design workshops, working with staff to consider how they might be involved in evaluating a new intervention, or understanding how teams work together (or don’t).

These are some of the benefits the research group identified:

  • Increased knowledge of a topic;
  • A safe space to talk about feelings, grievances, and frustrations;
  • The time to think about things differently, perhaps from a different perspective;
  • An opportunity to be more engaged at work, to do something different, to make a change;
  • An opportunity to contribute, to feel valued;
  • An opportunity to think critically/identify problems with current practice;
  • A chance to try something new, to be creative, to demonstrate expertise, to be valued and listened to;
  • A space to stop and think (particularly for staff);
  • A boost to morale through positive feedback.

Despite this list, a brief review of the literature reveals very little about the benefits of the process or activity of being involved in applied health research for staff. In 1996, Buxton and Hanney published an article examining the ‘payback’ for applied research. In this article they hint at the benefits of the process of research, referring in their model to the fact that ‘some outputs/paybacks may flow directly from the processes and the fact that the research is being carried out’ (Buxton and Hanney, 1996, p.39). However, in later frameworks of Research Impact (e.g., Kurivilla, Mays, Pleasant and Walt, 2006) the impacts of the research activity itself are not acknowledged and, given the challenges of measuring the impact of research, even when focus is on outputs alone, this is perhaps unsurprising.

As applied health researchers we often engage in participatory forms of research and work closely with those at the sharp end as well as those in managerial positions in healthcare organisations. It is this direct contact with people in the service that means the potential to do good (and bad, but this is not the focus here) is huge. Our aim in writing this piece is to start a dialogue with other researchers about the benefits of the activity or the ‘doing of’ research in health and social care settings. If we can better understand and capture these benefits then we might be in a stronger position to demonstrate the value or ‘cost-effectiveness’ of our research to funders, stakeholders and participants alike.

We are seeking feedback on:

1   Your own experiences of the benefits for healthcare staff (managers, clinicians or any other staff group) of being involved in doing research via a short survey:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/SNW2WMW

2   Research papers that address this topic directly

3   There is one tool, Visible Impact of Research (VICTOR), developed by Jo Cooke and team within the Yorkshire and Humber CLAHRC, that has acknowledged, at least some of the benefits of the research process. Primarily, this tool aims to identify the health and economic impact of the research, the reputational benefits, the generation of knowledge and building of capacity for research. However, the VICTOR tool also includes an assessment of workforce impacts. Two of these questions ask specifically about benefits for workforce skills and practice of their involvement in the research process and another item asks about whether taking part in the research has influenced teams to do something different together. There may be other tools like this out there, that we are yet to come across – if so, please do let us know.