Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Don't give up

Posted by Amy O'Donnell

Before I embarked on my PhD in public health, I spent eight long years at the coalface of policy research. My chosen specialist subject: promoting the participation of under-represented groups in the labour market.

A huge part of that research agenda was engaging with so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ groups to find out their views and experiences of economic and social exclusion. So those eight years saw me reaching out to countless ethnic minority support groups and more fieldwork with long-term benefit claimants than I care to remember. Truly, I had the whole research-engagement agenda licked.

Don't give up
Or so I thought. Right up until the point I started recruiting participants for my doctorate.

For the record, my PhD examines whether we can use routinely collected data to assess the delivery of alcohol interventions in primary care. The fieldwork involves data extraction in 20 GP practices plus interviews with GPs themselves.

I’ve done scores of lone parent interviews. I’ve tracked down Muslim community representatives in the far reaches of Scotland. I’ve recruited peer researchers to access the insular gypsy and traveller community. Bring on the full-time, paid professionals in their permanent, accessible venues!

Turns out that when you don’t have any research funds, when you’re not part of the exclusive Primary Care Research Network, and when you can’t actually get anyone to answer your emails, it’s actually pretty damn difficult to get GPs to take part in your research.

Of course I didn’t quite appreciate this at the start when I posted out my pretty, ethics committee-approved recruitment letters to a select sample of practices and waited for the offers to flood in. They’ll soon come-a-calling, I though, and I’ll go skipping merrily off to collect my data. But they didn’t, so I couldn’t.

Slowly, two key issues emerged. First, I was hardly alone in this endeavour. There are simply zillions of us health researchers trying to grab a few minutes of GPs’ precious time. Understandably, the research that makes financial sense, or reflects a particular interest of the practice tends to take priority. Second, recruiting GPs in the middle of the most significant shake-up of the NHS since its foundation was never going to be easy.

But after many long months of unanswered letters and emails, and playing phone-tag with elusive practice managers, I am delighted to announce that I now have 15 practices recruited and have actually started my GP interviews.

So what happened?

All I can suggest is that I just tried harder. So instead of tens of emails to practice managers, I sent hundreds. I forgot my pride and pestered every friend, family member and colleague I could think of who might be able to help. I fine tuned my data requirements so that I could truthfully assure practice staff that I really would take up as little as possible of their busy day. I offered to visit for a ‘quick chat’ at anytime, anyplace, and with anyone that might listen. I was friendly, positive and professional.

Most of all, I just didn’t give up.

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