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As the world is rocked by the aftermath of the recession and the government attempts to manage the largest budget deficit in history, Britain’s National Health Service faces a challenging future. Now more than ever, focus must go on streamlining services and reviewing objectives to ensure that the best possible service can be delivered under increasingly constrained resources.
A tough financial climate can bring opportunities for those best placed to support change. Businesses that can help decision-makers better understand the health sector and advise on supply and demand will be central to ensuring the long-term health of the NHS. Likewise, in the private health sector, those who can identify new growth opportunities and demonstrate bottom-line impact are in high demand.
Research falls within this space. The emergence of 24-hour news and social media has brought government departments and decisions more firmly into the public eye. Any step taken involving public spend will be quickly and broadly scrutinised. The result has been a steady swing towards undertaking more in-depth social, market and opinion research to support healthcare professionals making decisions on all from budget allocation to drug policy or advertising. As this research is undertaken to inform important decisions, it must be ethical and properly conducted to ensure that it is robust. Above all, research must be able to prove its own worth, providing measurable insights and quantifiable results at a time when output is everything.
The Market Research Society (MRS) is the UK’s regulatory body for social, market and opinion research. It helps public and private sector healthcare professionals source credible, experienced research suppliers who can deliver realistic, impactful results. Here, MRS Chairman Rowland Lloyd is joined by several healthcare research experts to discuss the role of research in the health sector and how the sector can make best use of research as a business intelligence tool.
Public sector health organisations are increasingly approaching research suppliers to help guide the decision-making process and demonstrate a good understanding of their stakeholders’ concerns – be that employees in the health sector, patients, drug companies or government. Gone are the days when research was a ‘tick box’ exercise; today, it is a lynchpin in helping to secure budgets, implement policy, build stakeholder support and develop a robust health service.
So, whether you are a healthcare practitioner, a user of services or a supplier to the sector, how can research help you? How does market, social and opinion research differ and 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 provide greater understanding of perceived attitudes. At its most effective, research can also 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 many uses within the health sector,” comments Steve Lowery, head of Custom Healthcare Research at Synovate UK. “It can help identify the potential for new products or services, it can help to ensure appropriate allocation of budgets and resources and it can be fundamental in helping to develop effective social marketing campaigns amongst the general public or specific patient groups. In addition to this, attitudinal research also enables organisations to assess different perceptions and opinions relating to customer and patient satisfaction.”
From a communications perspective, research opens up a two-way dialogue with key stakeholders, informing the selection of effective channels of communication. It also helps organisations’ public relations efforts, helping them to understand the behaviour and attitudes of target audiences to inform media positioning and branding.
IFF Research is a leading provider of market, social and communications research to the health sector, working for the Department of Health, NHS Direct, the COI and Primary Care Trusts. Joint managing director Mark Speed thinks that using research to support and inform decisions on public spending is more important now than ever. He explains: “Research helps organisations develop policy and make decisions safe in the knowledge that these are really based on patient needs and wants. Our clients are often accountable for spending public money and they must ensure funds are directed appropriately and spent effectively.”
Whilst it may be costly to conduct robust patient and local resident research, it ought to more than pay for itself, continues Mark. “When developing policy and making key decisions about the prioritisation of services, user opinion is crucial. And if a health campaign is aiming to change behaviour, using research to help develop the messages and creative approach can make the difference between a campaign that works and is on target and one that fails to communicate the message to the core audience.”
As with any professional service, research is only as valuable as those who undertake it. Organisations wanting to benefit from the real value of research must approach accredited suppliers who stick to the rules to ensure findings are above all accurate, robust and reflect public opinion.
The research sector is renowned for its professional conduct and ethics and 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: “Gone are the days when research was perceived to be ticking boxes and answering quick surveys. Today, it is about understanding what questions to ask, who to ask, and how to ask them in order to get useful results. And when organisations take shortcuts they find themselves spending money on the wrong solution – a risk that those in the public eye, spending public money, certainly cannot afford to take.”
He continues: “MRS Company Partners and MRS members must adhere to the MRS Code of Conduct and the Data Protection Act of 1998, which offer a strict professional set of parameters that restrict malpractice in research. Providing these legal and ethical rules are complied with, research can provide an unparalleled insight into the opinions and actions of audiences to redefine the way decisions are made.”
Types of research
There are broadly two types of research, quantitative and qualitative. Both have their own specific purpose and any MRS-accredited research supplier can 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 changed hours at a GP surgery or investment in a new drug.
Qualitative research, on the other hand, involves much smaller samples and more bespoke, personal questioning, which can provide a greater degree of insight. This is frequently used by researchers running focus groups to help inform an advertising or communication campaign. 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 for advice and guidance. 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 and those with healthcare research expertise can be easily found.
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 health care providers. MRS and LARIA’s joint ‘Using Surveys for Consultations’ guides local public sector organisations looking to conduct research. The document complements the ‘MRS Code of Conduct’ and offers advice specifically on researching public opinion on issues of local importance, such as the various types of health service provision. More information on this can be found at 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 Hepatitis C case study (see below) reveals, research can play a vital role in helping communicate with and reassure stakeholders on sensitive and complex health issues. Understanding what drives your audiences, especially in these challenging times, is the key to ensuring every decision taken is the right one.”
How to commission research
“Your choice of research supplier will be driven by a number of factors, including the research objectives and the target audience,” comments Synovate’s Steve Lowery. “Our clients want to use an MRS recognised supplier who understands best practice and has signed up to the MRS Code. This reassures them that the research will be conducted properly and that the methodology will be grounded in stringent theory giving results that are credible. It also means the research will be developed with due consideration for ethics and data protection – for example, ensuring that participants’ anonymity and confidentiality will be preserved at all times and making sure that they are given an opportunity to get their point across.”
Rowland Lloyd concludes: “If any organisation, in any sector, wants to make decisions based on the results of research, it simply has to stand up to scrutiny. They must invest in suppliers who fully understand the brief and who comply with the MRS Code of Conduct. With concerns around data privacy ever prevalent, the Code enables researchers to reassure respondents that their details are kept securely and that information is not misused – vital if you are to get a good response rate and honest answers. Above all, it reassures decision makers that policy, communication or budgetary decisions, however significant, are the right ones to take.”
Further advice on how to commission healthcare research that complies with the MRS Code of Conduct can be found on the MRS and Research Buyer’s Guide websites.
The Department of Health commissioned IFF Research to explore awareness of and attitudes towards Hepatitis C in 2003. Since then IFF has worked over the last seven years to help refine and measure a campaign facing a unique combination of challenges. The purpose of the research is to raise awareness of Hepatitis C among ‘at risk’ groups, to encourage those at risk to be tested and, if positive, to get treatment immediately.
IFF has employed a range of research tools to deliver this research. Baseline surveys involving general public omnibus questions have measured penetration and recruited at risk groups for follow-up. This has been followed by face-to-face quantitative survey among at risk groups and general public focus groups to measure opinion and attitudes. IFF has also implemented a qualitative creative development study with Hepatitis C sufferers to enable more in-depth questioning.
IFF is soon to start interviewing 200 ex-Intravenous drug users as well as conducting a survey among the general public and south Asians to evaluate the current campaign.
This research demonstrates that hard to reach audiences can be accessed and surveyed on highly sensitive and complex health issues. IFF’s research has helped the DoH to identify the most effective communications channels for encouraging its targets to act and has helped drive an uplift in awareness and understanding of Hepatitis C.
For more information
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