NIHR Clinical Research Network and the Council for Allied Health Professions Research break down barriers to build a stronger research culture
What’s the issue?
Allied health professionals (AHPs) are a diverse group of health and social care professionals. They include physiotherapists, occupational therapists, radiographers, paramedics, dietitians, speech and language therapists, art, music and dance therapists, along with operating department practitioners, podiatrists, orthoptists, prosthetists, and orthotists.
With a broad scope of influence on health and wellbeing, they are well-placed to impact the lives of individuals and populations. More than 65,500 AHPs work in the NHS, and they make up a third of the UK’s health and social care workforce. They play a critical role in ensuring that future developments in healthcare reflect the needs of the public.
These professions often come with high clinical caseloads and immense time pressure. They also lack a tradition of research. Many AHPs do not feel confident engaging in research. They may see their knowledge and skills as inferior to other healthcare professionals and as a result, need substantial support to develop research skills.
A culture of research brings benefits both to individuals and the system. Professionals say that having a research interest improves their job satisfaction and career progression. Institutions where research is encouraged have been shown to have higher rates of patient satisfaction, better outcomes for patients, improved efficiency within the organisation and reduced staff turnover.
Existing research frameworks for AHPs are specific to the individual professions. They vary in their descriptions of research knowledge and skills. Researchers set out to bring these frameworks together in a single document. Their aim was to create a common framework to help AHPs at all stages of their career engage in research. This could help break down barriers to research activity and build a stronger research culture.
Researchers identified and analysed 19 existing AHP research frameworks. They converted this content into statements describing how the required levels of research skills increase in step with developing levels of seniority. So, a junior practitioner would be expected to have an awareness of research; a consultant practitioner would need advanced abilities.
The researchers organised these statements into themes. They then ran a workshop for stakeholders including AHP professionals, regional training providers, clinicians, national workforce planning policy representatives, and members of the NIHR Clinical Research Network and the Council for Allied Health Professions Research (CAHPR) strategy group. They made recommendations on how the common framework could be used in practice.
It was adapted and added to during this process to create a final version.
‘Shaping Better Practice Through Research: A Practitioner Framework’ is the name of the final document.
It provides advice on collaboration, career development and research-informed practice; and guidance on the following eight domains of research:
- career development
- research methods
- carrying out research safely and effectively (delivery)
- putting research results into practice
- collaborating with others in research
- management and leadership
- education and training
- strategy and planning
The framework describes four levels of research skills - awareness, core, intermediate, advanced – and looks in detail at aspects of these research domains. For example, ethics and informed consent is part of the safe delivery of research. A junior practitioner at ‘awareness’ level, understands confidentiality and can undertake consent and recruitment. An established practitioner at ‘core’ level knows about legal requirements and can carry out a risk assessment. A clinical researcher at ‘intermediate’ level can plan the ethical conduct of research. A consultant practitioner at ‘advanced’ level has knowledge of licensing authorities.
Why is this important?
This is the first common framework designed to enhance and support AHP research.
Its unified approach and shared language could help drive research activity and evidence-informed practice across a variety of health and social care settings. Building a culture of research for AHPs could improve services for patients and increase career satisfaction for practitioners.
The framework could be used in workforce planning, policies, and guidance. It could be used in parallel with existing appraisal systems in career planning, and to support the integration of research results into everyday practice. It aims to stimulate discussion and reflection, and to move towards having a workforce that routinely carries out research.
The framework needs to be tested across a range of practice settings.
The current version could be further developed to give practical advice on what steps are needed to achieve the aims of the framework. The advice should be relevant to all settings and all levels of expertise, including entry-level. Featuring case studies in the framework may help with implementation. The researchers hope to secure further funding to pursue these developments and to consult a wider, international panel of AHP stakeholders.
This research was jointly funded by the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care Yorkshire and Humber (CLAHRC YH), and the Council for Allied Health Professions Research (CAHPR).
You may be interested to read
- The full paper: Harris J, and others. Developing a consolidated research framework for clinical allied health professionals practising in the UK. BMC Health Serv Res. 2020;20:852
- The Council for Allied Health Professions Research (CAHPR) Research Practitioner’s Framework: Shaping Better Practice Through Research: A Practitioner Framework, 2019
- The NIHR Clinical Research Network’s Allied Health Professionals Strategy 2018-2020
- NHS England report: Allied Health Professions into Action: Using Allied Health Professionals to transform health, care and wellbeing, 2017
The full NIHR Signal and additional expert commentary was published on 8 March
Carol Payne NIHR CAHPR AHP research champion. Clinical physiotherapy specialist, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital
Christine Comer NIHR CAHPR AHP research champion. NIHR clinical lecturer. Advanced physiotherapy practitioner, Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust
This framework provides much needed guidance for physiotherapy services wishing to develop and embed a research culture. Clinicians and service managers alike may use the framework to reflect on individual and service-level research skills and development needs.
Physiotherapy roles are rapidly evolving in response to growing economic challenges and increasingly complex health and social needs. Research activity encourages better health outcomes and more cost-effective care (Davis 2020), and this new framework will be a valuable tool as we look to the research development needs of our physiotherapy workforce to drive change. Imagine the impact on future health and wellbeing if every physiotherapist felt confident to implement emerging evidence and their service contributed to or led research!
To help support this all AHP’s working in the NHS in the UK are invited to complete a survey. This in-depth survey will explore how confident and supported you feel to engage in research, irrespective of your research experience, and will help identify research support and development needs across the NHS.
Davis, S.F et al., 2021. Public Health in Practice,2:100067.
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