Research into practice

In 1998 Health Action Zones (HAZs) were set up to reduce health inequalities and improve services in the most deprived areas of England. HAZs are multi-agency organisations working primarily with health services, social services and voluntary organisations.

All HAZs were established to act as “laboratories for health improvement”. They needed to demonstrate which innovative approaches led to the greatest health gain and share lessons about improving services and modernising treatment and care.1

In 1999, the National HAZ Fellowship Scheme was set up to accelerate local learning and help develop best practice. Mirroring the national scheme, Nottingham HAZ created an opportunity for five front-line health and social care staff to embark on research.

The scheme began in 2000 and provided funding for staff to be seconded for either six months (full-time) or 12 months (part- time). Academic supervision was provided to help develop research proposals and methods as well as the final report.

Evaluation of the Nottingham HAZ Fellowship Scheme demonstrated clear gains to research practitioners and their associated organisations.2 The scheme effectively provided protected time for front-line staff to develop their skills, knowledge and careers, all of which were welcomed by the practitioners and their employers. They found the research highly enjoyable, allowing them to build confidence, realise their potential and improve their credibility in their field of work.

Our evaluation also indicated that the scheme increased research capacity by removing some barriers to doing research for front-line social services staff and other primary care organisations that did not have a culture of research by practitioners. As one research practitioner said: “I now have a good grasp of the basics of research and its importance within the context of service delivery. I have also begun to think of new and better ways that we can work together with health providers. I feel more confident and creative now and have a wider view of my work.”

All these benefits are inextricably linked with the wider agenda for helping organisations use evidence to develop practice and change services for the better. As a manager said: “We learned more about the process of research, its findings and how best to implement them to enhance service quality.”

A research practitioner added: “Research is enjoyable and at the same time you can influence how your organisation can work in future because you have concrete evidence.”

The opportunity to do research is often constrained by funding, accountability and day-to-day pressures. Enhanced research skills and knowledge (and the desire to continue to use these new skills) among the practitioners and their managers, suggested that the scheme had undoubtedly built research capacity and made a contribution to improvements in service delivery. Being active in research was also considered beneficial for career development.

It is recommended that a research fellowship approach should be considered by organisations such as social services who wish to motivate or retain staff and enhance research skills and career development of practitioners. To achieve this, it is essential that organisations appreciate the value of putting research at the heart of service delivery improvements.

1 L Bauld, K Judge, L Lawson, M Mackenzie, J Mackinnon and J Truman, Health Action Zones in Transition: Progress in 2000, 2000

2 A full report can be obtained from Dara Coppel ( )

Jane Dyas is Trent Focus local co-ordinator for Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, and Dara Coppel is director of Nottingham Health Action Zone, Nottingham City Primary Care Trust.

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