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May 2022

Can we adapt the way we do research when involving healthcare staff as research participants?

Dr Raabia Sattar, Dr Jane Heyhoe & Professor Rebecca Lawton


NHS staff live the health system every day and have much to offer research about healthcare (Marjanovic et al., 2019). Their first-hand experience and insight means that staff have a unique role in applied health research that seeks to improve the delivery of care and support staff wellbeing.  Applied health research is beneficial for patients, healthcare staff, and organisations. A review by Harding et al (2107) found that staff participation in research was associated with increased organisation level patient satisfaction, improved efficiency of care, and lower staff turnover. Increased levels of research engagement by healthcare staff may improve the processes of care (Boaz et al., 2015).

While NHS healthcare staff can make important contributions to research, there are a number of barriers to staff taking part.  These include a lack of time to participate in research (Marjanaovic et al., 2019), a lack of funding to support engagement (Bryant., 2014; Brereton, L., et al., 2017), and a lack of support by leadership (Evanst et al., 2013; French et al., 2016; Mitchell et al., 2015). While research has been at the centre of an effective response to Covid-19, pressures on staff have only increased during the last two years, meaning that staff ability to be involved in research as participants is also under pressure. At the same time, the Covid-19 crisis and the associated changes in practice, work pressures and emotional toll mean that now more than ever the voices of NHS staff need to be heard. This is vital if we are to learn from and respond to their first-hand experiences of delivering care during these unprecedented times and to ensure the development of the most appropriate interventions, policies and frameworks to continue to improve healthcare.

The traditional ways of including staff in research have involved methods such as face-face interviews, focus groups and questionnaires, as well as observations of the work as done via ethnographic studies. Undoubtedly, these types of research techniques are needed to address certain research questions. However, as researchers, it is important that we take into account that when we ask healthcare staff take part in such research activities, they are away from their clinical duties and responsibilities. We must also consider, what are we offering staff in return for their time? Can we adapt the way we involve participants in our research so that there is greater participant gain? Below, we provide an example of an alternative participation approach we have used for one of our research projects.

An example of an innovative approach: CASE (Conversations About Safety and Emotions)
How we express emotion and interpret emotion in others is integral to important aspects of healthcare such as decision making, team functioning and effective leadership.  Healthcare professionals are required to make clinical decisions in contexts that are emotionally charged and require healthcare staff to actively manage their own and others emotions (Kozlowski et al, 2017). Although there is now increasing recognition that emotions play an important role in staff wellbeing, patient experience and the delivery of safe care, research within this area is limited. Therefore, the aim of this study was to explore the role of emotion in maternity practice within hospital settings.

 We were planning this study during the initial months of Covid-19, and we quickly realised that healthcare staff within the NHS were now being faced by immense service pressures. After discussions with a member of our team, a consultant obstetrician, we started to think more about reciprocity as part of the research contract. Most research groups provide feedback to participants about the findings of their research and make recommendations that can be used to improve practice, but benefits associated with the ‘process’ of being a participant in research are less frequently deliberated. This notion of benefits of participation was central to our research design. We worked with our clinical partners to develop a workshop series focusing on delivering evidence and supporting staff to think about the evidence on emotion and safety. The series – Conversations About Safety and Emotion was delivered during scheduled training time (Friday afternoons). Whilst delivering the workshop we planned to collect data by recording the break out room discussions which we ran as short focus groups. Using this innovative approach allowed us as researchers to capture the data we required for our study, whilst also offering healthcare staff training.

This study is now underway and takes the form of a programme of four online interactive training workshops, with a mixture of teaching and group discussions. These workshops are multi-disciplinary in nature, and include maternity clinicians including midwives and obstetricians as well as senior leaders. The workshops are delivered by psychologists and a consultant obstetrician. We have delivered the first workshop which focused on feeling psychologically safe in teams, to a mixture of 37 midwives and obstetricians. All participants signed up and consented to the recording and analysis of discussions during the workshops, at least 24 hours in advance of the training workshop.  Feedback on the experience from staff was that they were supported and encouraged to engage in discussions about challenging issues in a safe space and that both the formal presentation and the discussions contributed to their learning. We believe this is a mutually beneficial method of delivering research, as we are able to collect research data, whilst also providing healthcare staff with evidence-based training and knowledge which they are able to apply to real life settings within their NHS workplace.

Involving NHS healthcare staff within research is fundamental to improving patient care, staff wellbeing and patient safety. However, due to the immense work pressures healthcare staff are facing, as researchers, we must adapt the way we involve staff in our research to ensure that they benefit from taking part. We are keen to hear from others about how they have adapted research so that healthcare staff benefit from the process of being engaged in that research. We also welcome the views of healthcare staff on how they would like to be involved in research and what we, as researchers, can do to reduce the burden and increase the benefits.

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