Searching for answers

Everything from drug development to waiting lists are increasingly influenced by the outcome of public consultation. The need for health and care providers to deliver fair, ethical and properly conducted research studies is as important as ever. Health policy makers are increasingly looking to identify and communicate with their target audiences and stakeholders more effectively in order to make the provision of services better.
With growing pressure on public bodies to become more accountable, the use of customer and stakeholder insight has become highly influential. Organisations, ranging from central government to Strategic Health Authorities and the various care and health trusts, are benefiting from the use of accurate and responsive research to guide and inform the decision making process, not only to reflect the opinions of stakeholders, but also to increase cost efficiency and maximise productivity.

What is research?
Research is based on the principle that a relatively small sample of people can provide accurate opinion and insight on any given 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 insight to perceived attitudes. At its most effective, research can operate as a means of communication between health service providers and their stakeholders and patients. Effective research can hold the key to understanding a target audience of any kind.

Benefits for the health sector
Research has a number of specific uses in the health sector including:

  • Attitudinal – research can enable organisations to assess a range of perceptions and opinions relating to customer and patient satisfaction and preference in the provision of services and products.
  • Policy development, implementation and evaluation – in the complex process of health policy development, research can provide effective evaluation at every stage.
  • Effectiveness and efficiency – getting value for money is critical in the health sector. Research can help identify waste and improve efficiency by isolating spending priorities.
  • Communications – research can enable two-way dialogue with key stakeholders and inform the selection of effective channels of communication.
  • Public relations – research can help health sector bodies understand the behaviour and attitudes of target audiences helping them with successful media positioning and branding.
  • Product development – research will identify which products are performing and which are not.

In short, the benefits of market, social and opinion research are clear, argues Fiona Wood, Director of Research at the Central Office of Information (COI) and member of MRS. She says: “Research is invaluable in making informed decisions across policy formulation, delivery and communications. Government led health campaigns are often funded by the taxpayer, so we have a responsibility to get it right first time. Accurate and effective research can help make this happen with cost efficiency and speed.”

Ensuring accuracy
For health sector organisations to feel the true value of research, they must ensure that key professional and ethical rules and guidelines are adhered to when conducting and commissioning research. Sticking to the rules and guidelines ensures that findings are accurate, fair and truly reflective of public opinion.
MRS has put in place a number of rules, guidelines and regulations to ensure good practice across sectors. Professionals that are MRS members and MRS Company Partners have to abide by the MRS Code of Conduct. This ethical framework, which was re-worked in 2005, provides a step by step guide to effective research.

What type of research do I need?
There are broadly two types of research used, not only in the health sector but across the sector. These are quantitative and qualitative, and both have their own specific purpose. MRS can help advise on what sort of research suits your own specific requirements. Quantitative research, as you might expect, involves using large samples of respondents to provide reflective data on major issues. Such research is particularly useful to inform a decision on, for example, an equipment or pharmaceuticals performance survey. Qualitative research, alternatively, involves much smaller samples and far more bespoke, personal questioning, which can provide insight and explore the thinking and behaviour of specific groups.

Where to get advice and guidance
The MRS website ( should be your first port of call. The site includes A Newcomers Guide to Market Research, as well as the annually updated Research Buyers Guide (, which lists MRS Company Partners and organisations with members of MRS, their contact details, geographic area and industry specialisms. All organisations and individuals listed in the Research Buyers Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct.
Elsewhere, LARIA (the Local Authorities Research & Intelligence Association), has its own website ( and works closely with MRS and 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 all 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.
“These sources provide an excellent starting point for any public sector organisation looking to benefit from research,” says Debrah Harding, Deputy Director General at MRS. “Healthcare providers, especially in the public sector, need to grasp the opportunity, using rules and guidance from MRS and LARIA, in order to take advantage of research and reach beyond traditional barriers of communication and perception.”

With members in more than 70 countries, MRS is the world’s largest association representing providers and users of market, social, and opinion research, and business intelligence.