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As the Department of Health progresses its strategic review of Britain’s healthcare services, from PCTs to hospital managers, all are faced with new challenges. There are opportunities to grasp and funding is available, but the question is how to best allocate resources to build a strong public health sector to meet the demands of 21st century living.
Understanding the sector and measuring supply and demand are crucial to making informed choices on future development. Decision-makers at all levels must be confident that the actions they take will stand up to scrutiny in a sector increasingly in the public eye.
The result has been a steady swing towards undertaking more in-depth social, market and opinion research to support healthcare professionals in their everyday tasks – from allocating budgets to advising on future policy. Research must be ethical and properly conducted to ensure that it is robust and can effectively inform important decisions, and it must also be commissioned efficiently to maximise value. As budgets are being squeezed, the desire for more informed decision-making must be considered alongside the need to deliver cost-effective solutions that benefit all stakeholders.
Uncovering healthcare issues
The Market Research Society (MRS) is the regulatory body for social, market and opinion research in the UK. It helps healthcare professionals in both the public and private sector to source research suppliers and implement strategies that provide optimum results.
We read about issues impacting the health sector on a daily basis – from the raging debate over a centralised NHS computer database to the funding of polyclinics. Increasingly, in the public eye and with every decision to spend taxpayers’ money openly scrutinised, public bodies must be transparent and accountable – heightening the need to demonstrate a good level of stakeholder insight.
On the back of this, public sector health organisations benefit from research studies that guide their decision-making process and demonstrate a good understanding of stakeholders’ concerns – enabling decisions to accurately reflect current opinion and demand.
But what exactly is market, social and opinion research, and how can it help improve services in the health sector?
What is research?
Research is based on the principle that a relatively small sample of people can provide accurate opinions and insights into a subject or issue that is representative of a much larger population or community. This data can then be applied to gauge public opinion and offer greater understanding of perceived attitudes.
At its most effective, research can operate as a means of communication between health service providers, their stakeholders and patients. Effective research can hold the key to understanding a target audience of any kind.
Research has several specific uses in the health sector including:
“The benefits of research are clear,” says Anna Cliffe, Head of Insight at Brahm and a member of MRS. “Research can help organisations develop policy and make decisions that are informed and truly based on customer needs and wants. Providers of health care services are often dealing with public money and now more than ever it is vital that funds are directed appropriately and spent effectively.”
Whilst customer research may cost money to conduct, good research ought to more than pay for itself, continues Anna: “When developing policy and making key decisions about the prioritisation of services, customer opinion is crucial. And in terms of health campaigns aiming to change behaviour, using research to help develop the messages and creatively used could make the difference between a campaign that works and one that doesn’t. That’s got to be worthwhile.”
As with any professional service, research is only as good as those who undertake it. The research sector is renowned for its professional conduct and ethics; health sector organisations wanting to benefit from the real value of research must ensure that they approach accredited suppliers who stick to the appropriate rules to ensure findings are above all accurate, fair and reflect public opinion.
MRS upholds a number of rules and guidelines to ensure good practice across sectors. Professionals that are MRS members and organisations that are MRS Company Partners have to abide by the MRS Code of Conduct, which provides a step by step guide to effective, fair and accurate research.
Rowland Lloyd, MRS Chairman, comments: “Good research is not about answering a quick survey – it is about understanding what questions to ask, who to ask, and how to ask them in order to get the desired result. Where shortcuts are taken organisations can find themselves spending money on the wrong solution – a risk those in the public eye, spending public money, certainly cannot
afford to take.”
Both the MRS Code of Conduct, which all MRS Company Partners and MRS members must adhere to, and the Data Protection Act of 1998, offer a strict professional set of parameters that restrict malpractice in research. When these legal and ethical rules and guidelines are met, research can provide an unparalleled insight into the thoughts and opinions of customers and audiences that can redefine the way decisions are made.
Types of research
There are broadly two types of research, quantitative and qualitative, and both have their own specific purpose. MRS Company Partner organisations and those organisations with MRS members can help advise on what sort of research suits a specific requirement.
Quantitative research generally involves using larger samples of respondents to provide reflective data on major issues. Such research would be particularly useful to inform a decision on the closure of a GP surgery or investment in a new drug.
Qualitative research, on the other hand, involves much smaller samples and far more bespoke, personal questioning, which can provide a greater degree of insight and explore the behaviour of specific groups. A combination of approaches often provides the fullest picture.
Advice and guidance
The MRS website (www.mrs.org.uk) should be your first port of call. The site includes A Newcomer’s Guide to Market Research, as well as the annually updated Research Buyer’s Guide (www.theresearchbuyersguide.com), which lists MRS Company Partners and organisations with MRS members, their contact details, geographic area and industry specialisms. All organisations and individuals listed in the Research Buyer’s Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct.
Elsewhere, LARIA (the Local Authorities Research & Intelligence Association), has its own website (www.laria.gov.uk) and works closely with MRS. LARIA can offer bespoke advice specifically to local, public sector, health care providers. In 2005, MRS and LARIA issued Using Surveys for Consultations as a joint guide for local public sector organisations looking to conduct market, social or opinion research. The document complements the MRS Code of Conduct and offers advice specifically on researching public and social opinion on issues of local importance, such as the various types of health service provision. More information on this and broader public opinion issues can be found at http://www.mrs.org.uk/standards/guidelines.htm.
“These sources are an excellent starting point for anyone looking to find out more about the benefits of research, and how it can assist in strategic decision-making,” says Rowland Lloyd. “As the Solihull NHS Care Trust case study reveals, research can change the way organisations operate. Healthcare providers, especially those in the public sector, need to use research to connect with their audiences. Understanding what drives them, especially in these challenging times, is crucial to delivering the best results.”
How to commission
“Selecting a research supplier depends upon the campaign and the target audience,” comments Anna Cliffe. “Our clients want to use an MRS recognised supplier who understands best practice and has signed up to the MRS Code, which ensures that the research is conducted properly. This means the research design will be grounded in stringent theory, giving results that are credible. It also means the research will be practiced with due care for ethical implications – for example, participant’s anonymity and confidentiality will be preserved whilst ensuring they’ve been an opportunity to get their point across.”
“It is critical that any organisation seeking to make decisions based on the results of market or social research invest in suppliers who fully understand the brief and who comply with the MRS Code of Conduct,” agrees Rowland Lloyd. “With concerns around data privacy ever present, the MRS Code reassures respondents that their details are kept securely and that information is not misused. The Code also reassures decision makers that research is credible and reliable for policy formulation.”
Solihull NHS Care Trust
Solihull NHS Care Trust (CT) has conducted customer research for many years. Brahm Insight works with the CT to provide a social research programme which allows the CT to consult with a representative sample of the population of Solihull and for them to have their say on shaping activities and services.
The core of the programme is a regular, quarterly quantitative panel survey. The telephone survey includes topics as diverse as perceptions of residents of the trust, use of health facilities, requirements for future facilities and health and exercise.
It is important that the research truly represents the population of the area, so research best practice quotas are set to ensure that all age groups, social classes and ethnic groups are included. Statistical analysis is used to note changes on the tracked measures from one quarter to the next.
Alongside the quarterly panel survey, Solihull NHS Care Trust also uses ad hoc research – for example, to support the development of an innovative ‘one stop shop for health and advice’ in the Chelmsley Wood area of Solihull. Brahm conducted an initial quantitative face-to-face survey of local residents to establish residents’ requirements and followed it up with focus groups with residents of different life stages to develop and hone the proposition, decide what the service should be called and how the experience should be delivered.
Dr Stephen Munday, director of Public Health at Solihull Care Trust, said: “It helped us immensely to really involve our customers throughout the process of developing this innovative new service. They challenged our thinking and helped us focus on community needs. We feel it is very important that public services are delivered by involving customers at the point of development”.
For more information
For more information on MRS and its activities, please visit www.mrs.org.uk
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