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Research in the care environment

The relationship between research, policy and practice

Although the need to translate research messages into policy and practice has been recognised and improved, this tripartite relationship continues to be complex. Policy makers often want research messages that are unequivocal and relevant to current and impending issues. Research is often retrospective and, when it is prospective, the questions with which it is concerned may seem distant from practice realities. Good research reflects the complexities and 'untidiness' of practice and makes the translation of sometimes contradictory findings into simple messages difficult to achieve.

Nevertheless research organisations have made progress in making research more useful to policy makers both in the way findings are communicated and in consulting research user organisations when planning programmes. There are, however, risks in pursuing research that requires a fast turnaround. This can act as a disincentive to invest in research which takes a longer-term view and correspondingly uses different methods and a different time frame.

Research-mindedness has not, on the whole, been as essential requisite for a career in social work or social care. Until recently, there has not been a strong incentive or pressure placed upon practitioners to keep up to date with current developments in research. There is also limited critical appraisal training opportunities within social care professions, so that research messages that do find there way into practice may do so without sufficient questioning of their relevance or reliability. Initiatives such as Research into Practice and Making Research Count serve to highlight the inter-relationship between research and practice, as does the setting up
of SCIE with the task of developing a knowledge base for social care. These developments are significant in the light of the debate about evidence-based practice.

The relationship between research and practice is even more problematic. For research knowledge to inform practice the messages from research need to be presented in accessible ways and be relevant to practitioners' current concerns. But this is only one half of the equation. Research Mindedness has not been, on the whole, an essential requisite for a career in social work or social care. There is now increasing pressure placed upon practitioners to keep up to date with current developments in research. There has also been a lack of critical appraisal training within social care professions, so that research messages that do find their way into practice may do so without sufficient questioning of their relevance or reliability. There is a need for this issue to be addressed. How research findings or evidence can feed in to decision-making in practice is the subject of a number of current initiatives such as research in practice (rip), Making Research Count or researchWeb which supports social work excellence in Scotland, etc.The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) provides a major contribution in this area. CEBSS was an earlier initiative which is now absorbed into the work of rip.

A response by Barnardo's

Some of the key issues concerned with research and the social work environment are explored in this section, based on a review carried out by Barnardo's and commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation between 1999 and 2000. The review explored:

  • the extent to which connections are made between research and practice in social care
  • the context in which practice decisions are made, and to what extent these are influenced by research findings
  • what may be done by stakeholders separately and together to help make better connections

The review used different methods to explore these areas:

  • a review of literature to identify dissemination strategies in use and examples of policy and practice being influenced by research
  • a review of dissemination initiatives developed by research producers, based on a postal questionnaire
  • focus group interviews with research users, including local authority and voluntary sector managers, practitioners, practice teachers and trainers and social work students that focused on access to and use of research and other knowledge sources in decision-making
  • interviews with key informants from research, policy and practice to further explore and clarify the issues involved in transferring research into the care environment

The review revealed that:

  • dissemination must be tied to implementation
  • research & development should be closely allied
  • practitioners need information at the right time
  • service users could have a greater voice in demanding the best of what works
  • a significant amount of the literature suggests dissemination is one way - more understanding is needed to know how researchers and others can learn from practitioners and users

There appear to be a number of important contributory factors to the integration of research by policy makers and practitioners.

The role of leadership and senior management was noted as being crucial in:

  • promoting an organisational culture that recognises the important of using and creating evidence-based practice and recognises the need to challenge existing practice in the light of available research evidence
  • demonstrating the value of research as a source of new ideas
  • providing access to research findings
  • encouraging research by practitioners
  • generating active collaboration with external researchers

Facilitation of adequate training and development support that encompassed critical appraisal skills and understanding of research methodologies were regarded by practitioners consulted in the review as essential in helping them evaluate the validity, rigour and usefulness of research. Such continuing professional development needs to be supported by:

  • The incorporation of the teaching of research skills in basic and advanced social work courses.
  • Product or issue champions who are enthusiastic and who have credibility in an organisation can act as a catalyst in raising the profile of research
  • Resources linked to research and development need to be protected and not to be the first to be axed in time of resource constraints.
  • Integration of a research and development component in job descriptions would help to embed the importance of and acceptance of research perspectives in professional roles
  • Managers can ensure that workload allocation includes time to enable practitioners to share learning from participation in research projects, training on research skills and to find and read research.

The factors that encourage effective dissemination appear to include:

Relevance and Quality -
of the research and its findings
Accessibility -
the messages need to be targeted at the right audience and presented in a user-friendly format
Ownership -
particularly for internal research and supported by links with policy makers
Timing -
of the information at the right time, balancing speed of output of findings with quality research

The most effective strategies for getting research messages in to the social care environment were found to be:

  • multiple approaches
  • reminders - manual and computer
  • educational outreach visits
  • strategies that have taken account of potential barriers

Researchers noted a number of methods that they had used to enable research messages to be heard. These included:

  • providing accessible research summaries
  • keeping research reports brief and concise
  • publishing articles in journals or publications that are aimed at a professional rather than academic audience
  • using language and styles of presentation that engage the user's interest
  • targeting the material to the needs of the audience
  • extracting policy and practice implications of research, doing some of the work for the users
  • Using the media
  • utilising a combination of dissemination methods including newsletters, web-sites, linking with research databases, use of different formats, targeted mailing, seminars, summaries for service users and user involvement in planning dissemination
  • being proactive in getting research findings out to agencies rather than expecting them to find them in the literature or via conferences

A last word...

For research evidence to inform practice there needs to be:

  • greater emphasis in agencies on implementation of research findings and research and development, rather than assuming that research activity and dissemination of research is enough
  • more involvement of service users in the design of research and in the dissemination and implementation of research findings and recommendations.
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