Early career researcher series: Why people centred research matters?

This week’s blog is by Hannah Harvey, Research assistant: Collaborative Working in Health Research (Hannah.Harvey@bcu.ac.uk)

The stereotype of researchers as introverted data analysts couldn’t be further from my experience. Like many in healthcare, I dreamt of being a “helper” since childhood. Yet, research initially seemed distant, a world of statistical tests and jargon. My undergraduate experience with mandatory Research Methods modules wasn’t exactly inspiring.

Human Stories Behind the Data

This all changed during a frustrating attempt to convince my grandma to install grab bars in her bathroom. “Eyesores!” she declared, picturing sterile hospital fixtures clashing with her beautiful teal Art Deco tiles. It hit me then: healthcare interventions only work if people are willing to use them. A look around the living room revealed a menagerie of ornamental medical devices, which – despite boasting a robust body of supporting evidence – lay gathering dust. A spirometer propped up the calendar, hearing aids acted as paperweights and the long-forgotten falls alert button was nestled in the fruit bowl.

Ever since that realisation, I have been puzzled by the challenge of finding ways to create solutions that meet real-life problems. How do you get evidence into bath-time? in my grandma’s ear? or on a lanyard around her neck? How can we “help people” in a way that they want to be helped? Behind data points on graphs are people with stories to tell, and that is what makes research exciting to me.

My Route In: Discovering the Power of Co-Methods

So – to everyone’s surprise, including my own – here began my career in research. My PhD explored how diagnosis is explained to families. Now, I focus on how researchers can collaborate with patients and healthcare professionals to create more inclusive and effective interventions.

The power of co-working (including co-creation, co-design, and co-production)1 where diverse stakeholders actively work together to develop solutions2, has been a revelation to me. Forget fancy equipment – my tools are coloured markers, flipcharts, and an openness to new ideas. Whilst navigating group dynamics and uncertainty can be nerve-wracking, the energy and diverse perspectives are truly inspiring and always leave me feeling motivated to do things differently.

Challenges and Support Systems for Early Career Researchers

Of course, high quality co-working is not without hurdles. Time constraints, participant recruitment, and managing conflicting viewpoints require continuous learning. But being an Early Career Researcher (ECR) comes with advantages. We are entering a time of rapid change in research practice, with a growing emphasis on collaboration and inclusive approaches3.

Mentorship has been invaluable to me. One of the greatest supports to me has been joining the “Knowledge to Care” research cluster at Birmingham City University. This allowed me to connect with fellow researchers with a shared passion for getting evidence successfully into practice.  This supportive environment fostered collaboration and encouraged exploring new communication strategies, like using art forms to bridge the academia-practice gap. My initial forays into knowledge translation (peer-reviewed journals, conferences) felt like shouting into an echo chamber. Working with others allowed me to experiment with creative approaches that resonate with a wider audience.

Tips for Fellow ECRs Curious About Co-Working

One of the joys of being in research is that you are constantly learning and reflecting on how you can do things differently. Whilst I feel far from ready to impart words of wisdom, here are the main things I have found useful in my time as an ECR in the world of co-working:

  • Collaborate widely and inclusively: Step outside your comfort zone and be sure to engage with people who don’t usually get involved in research.
  • Know why and plan how: Co-working, whichever approach you take, needs to be applied in a way that best fits the needs of the target population and research problem. Take time to plan and carefully articulate the type of research partnership that will enable productive collaboration4,5.
  • Seek mentorship: Experienced researchers can offer invaluable guidance. Don’t be afraid to ask the “stupid questions”.
  • Communicate differently: Tailor your message to your audience and explore the power of storytelling and art forms.

In my view, the potential rewards far outweigh the hurdles. Witnessing a healthcare provider incorporate a co-designed intervention into their practice, or a patient express gratitude for research that directly impacted their care, is a truly validating experience. It reinforces my belief in the power of collaborative research, leading to better, safer healthcare for all.

References

  1. WILLIAMS O, SARRE S, PAPOULIAS, SC, KNOWLES S, ROBERT G, BERESFORD P, ROSE D, CARR S, KAUR M, PALMER VJ. Lost in the shadows: reflections on the dark side of co-production. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2020 Dec; 18:1-0.
  2. ROBERT G, DONETTO S, WILLIAMS O. Co-designing healthcare services with patients. In: The Palgrave handbook of co-production of public services and outcomes. Palgrave Macmillan 2021:313-33.
  3. REDMAN S, GREENHALGH T, ADEDOKUN L, STANISZEWSKA S, DENEGRI S, Co-production of Knowledge Collection Steering Committee. Co-production of knowledge: the future. BMJ. 2021 Feb 16;372.
  4. COWDELL F, DYSON J, SYKES M, DAM R, PENDLETON R. How and how well have older people been engaged in healthcare intervention design, development or delivery using co‐methodologies: a scoping review with narrative summary. Health & Social Care in the Community. 2022 Feb;30(2):776-98.
  5. WILLIAMS BN, KANG SC, JOHNSON J. (Co)-contamination as the dark side of co-production: Public value failures in co-production processes. Public Management Review. 2016 May 27;18(5):692-717.

 

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