Elf help to ensure your research has digital impact #ResearchWales16


Today I’m in Cardiff for the Health and Care Research Wales Research with Impact conference (PDF). I’m giving a talk about new ways to engage with research and how digital impact is an increasingly important part of any research dissemination.

Health and Care Research Wales was launched in May 2015 and this conference brings together people from universities, research centres, clinical trial and research units, NHS R&D teams and elsewhere, to discuss:

  • the impact of public involvement on research and
  • the impact of research on policy and practice.
My talk is a combination of darkness and light. I'll start with the darkness as that generally works best.

My talk is a combination of darkness and light. I’ll start with the darkness (cue menacing music…)

How come we’re not evidence-based yet!?

For goodness sake! It’s well over 20 years since the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine was founded in Oxford and the Cochrane Collaboration started pumping out systematic reviews. NICE have been around for 17 years, providing us with (mostly) very decent evidence-based guidance, so there’s no shortage of good quality evidence out there.

The problem is we still can’t get the evidence when we need it and most health and social care professionals have less time to read new research and an increasing workload and burden of endless service reorganisations. The NHS Atlas of Variation in Healthcare shows that there is an increasing variation in practice and use of unproven treatments.

Can we fix the evidence?

Coupled with all of this is the simple fact that most research is still written for researchers, rather than for practitioners or patients. About half of it doesn’t get published (support #AllTrials) and about half of the published stuff is biased. The relevant and reliable evidence often remains locked away behind paywalls for many of us, even though our taxes have often paid for it!

Do we have the skills and motivation to engage with research?

I’ve spent the last 20 years asking health and social care professionals what they think of research and how often they use it in practice and I have to be honest, the most common responses are shrugs and those vague blank embarrassed looks that you humans do so well. We elves just smile our joyful smiles when we think of reading trials and discussing the findings with each other around the campfire!

To be fair, it is hard work and not something that necessarily fits at the end of a hard day working for a frontline practitioner. Research producers and disseminators need to take some responsibility to deliver evidence in accessible and usable chunks so that tired, stressed and overworked humans can use it.

Do you want to read this full-text Cochrane systematic review with me?

Do you want to read this full-text Cochrane systematic review with me? How about this 300 page HTA report?

Blogs and digital media can reach the parts that other media cannot reach

Of course this is where evidence-based research blogs, social media and loads of other digital media come in (just walk towards the light folks). We can help people keep in touch with the evidence that matters to them, pushing relevant content to them in a layered format that fits in with their day (5 seconds for a tweet, 30 seconds for an abstract, 3 minutes for a blog or video summary, 30-60 minutes for a podcast or expert video webinar or tweet chat or (eeek!) the actual full-text paper.

The truly wonderful thing about blogs and all this digital gubbins is that it’s so open and democratic. The conversations I’ve had on the Internet these last few years about mental health have often been remarkable learning experiences for me because of the sheer diversity of the group of people discussing the evidence. Bring together patients, carers, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers, policy makers, commissioners and elves into a space with the right atmosphere and something quite special does often happen (keep walking towards the light everyone!)

Shared values and safe partnerships are key

There’s a huge amount of competition in health these days, and I’m not just talking about the increasingly corporate feel to our hospitals. Research is a cut-throat business and funding is hard to come by, especially in mental health, but that doesn’t mean that we should lock ourselves away in our homes, offices or institutions (although of course some of us have little choice).

I love working in mental health, partly because it’s endlessly fascinating just reading about problems and solutions relating to illness and wellbeing, but mostly because the tweeps are just so lovely. I’ve met so many decent, driven, talented, passionate hard-working people since I started working in mental health in 1999, but especially in the last 5 years since I launched the Mental Elf blog. There’s definitely a shared ethos and strong desire to work together to learn from each other and make a real difference to the lives of people going through mental health difficulties.

It's a mental health community love-in

It’s a mental health community love-in!

Engagement is the aim, not vanity analytics!

In the early 2000s I spent many happy days travelling up and down the country running evidence-based healthcare workshops for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. There was often a smart-arse shrink hiding at the back of the workshop who would ask: “Where’s the evidence for evidence-based medicine?” By this he would mean do you have any unbiased research that shows evidence-based practice actually has a positive impact on patient care? It’s a good (if slightly annoying) question, because of course it took many years to build up the evidence-base for this approach and we’re still adding to it now.

Digital dissemination is the same; it needs to focus on engagement and not be swayed by meaningless statistics. Our numbers of hits, followers, subscribers or likes are ultimately not worth counting because they tell you nothing about what people are actually doing with the evidence.

We need to track what people read and how they respond to new evidence; do they share it, comment on it, make a note of it for their CPD or actually change their practice as a result?

We also need to make the process of keeping up to date with the latest evidence interesting and fun. So much research is dry and academic, dull and difficult, it’s no wonder that people don’t want to read it. It needs to be brought alive and people need to see its value and recognise the positive impact that it can have.

Are people actually engaging with your research in a meaningful way?

Are people actually engaging with your research in a meaningful way?

How do we do this systematically?

Let’s get people on social media and let’s get them talking to each other; that has to be the first step. The frankly amazing WeCommunities is a fab place to start. Get yourselves on a tweet chat and learn from each other!

There’s no denying the critical appraisal skills gap. People are sometimes terrified of reading research, so we need to help them build confidence and skills in a fun way. WeCATS is a great way to start people off and we’re planning a revamped programme of chats for 2017 right now! If you’re after something more substantial, I would highly recommend the CASP critical appraisal training.

Here in the woodland, we also believe that gamified CPD is where it’s at. Helping people keep up to date in a fun and engaging way, lowers the barrier to entry and helps incentivise people to read a blog, watch a debate, listen to a podcast and get involved in a discussion to learn something new. Our membership features are becoming popular with the students and staff at Universities who have subscribed. We have special introductory offers in the pipeline for Universities, Trusts, Charities and Professional Membership Bodies, so now is a really good time to talk to us about the benefits of a bulk subscription for your organisation.

Finally I want to briefly mention something that I’m very excited by, which we’ve been developing over the last few months. It’s a digital conference service that I hope to launch soon, in partnership with Mark Brown and Vanessa Garrity from WeMHNurses. We will work with you to extend the reach of your event and create true engagement and legacy through a combination of social and digital cleverness. It’s a service we plan to sell next year, but it’s also something that will be packaged into our National Elf Service Institutional Subscriptions.

In short, joining the National Elf Service doesn’t just provide your staff and students with enjoyable and innovative research updates, it also helps you disseminate your research to a wider and more engaged audience, which will bring true digital impact.

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