Friday 27 September 2019

Actions bring risks

Posted by Llinos Mary Jehu, Research Associate with AskFuse, and Pat Watson, Research Fellow, Teesside University

We all know that. At a time when many of us are returning from holiday (or conference), we can reflect on the risks we took, like driving to the airport or eating sea-food.

So it’s no surprise that participatory action research brings risks. Co-researchers may be exposed to the risks that academics frequently anticipate, such as risks arising from lone-working or the emotional impact of data collection and reflection. There are also risks associated with research being carried out by people who have not been trained to the level of an academic, such as confidentiality, informed consent or interviewing techniques.

I’ve been involved in participatory action research at two universities, as well as within the NHS and local government. I’ve been through university ethics and NHS ethics, jumping through hoops as we’ve recruited and trained co-researchers, often re-submitting so we can finally start collecting and analysing data. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time getting to grips with systems for paying co-researchers expenses and honoraria. It’s amazing how complicated getting agreement to give out some supermarket vouchers can be, as both the ethical risks and financial risks are apparently enormous.

For all these projects, risk was removed, reduced or managed through our training and support systems. The training sessions allowed potential co-researchers to build their understanding of what the research involved, giving them an opportunity to opt-out should they choose. The sessions also built open, trusting relationships which, very occasionally, allowed us to identify and counsel people away from the project and signpost them to other opportunities. These relationships were vital during data collection periods. We may have drunk gallons of coffee and eaten far too much cake, but frequent, informal meetings with co-researchers ensured we kept a handle on what was happening in terms of ethics, finance and lone-working.

Consequently, I was a bit thrown when AskFuse - the responsive research and evaluation service run by Fuse - received a query from Pat Watson at Teesside University. Pat’s been commissioned by Sunderland City Council to carry out a piece of participatory action research involving pregnant mums in the design, development and implementation of a project looking at how expectant mums make decisions on how to feed their babies. The university Ethics committee had asked about insurance for co-researchers, and we had to admit that no one in the AskFuse team had any examples of formal arrangements. I also had a slight concern that, given the risk-averse nature of many large organisations, such a requirement might pose an insurmountable barrier for the research proposal. Undeterred, Pat went on the hunt, with a meandering email trail that eventually reached the University’s Deputy Director of Finance and the Liability Underwriter for the University’s insurers, UMAL. To my absolute surprise and delight, they confirmed ‘that the Teesside University Employer Liability/Public Liability/Public Indemnity covers apply to all University authorised research activity’. If Ethics approve participatory action research, then the co-researchers are insured.

It’s a huge relief that we now have a tick to put in the required box, and we have an example to cite should another researcher be asked the same question. I am really impressed with the approach of the insurance company: as their website states, they ‘never shy away from difficult risks’. However, managing risk in participatory action research requires far more than ticking boxes, regardless of how important these boxes may be. An equally important tool for identifying and managing risk is the strong relationships that successful co-research depends on. These relationships require time and investment, going to where people are and being prepared to share their space. They require trust and respect; possibly not asking people to show you a receipt before you pay their bus fare and not assuming that they’ll use their supermarket voucher to buy cider.

Research tools, data collection and analysis will be different, and often better, when the research process involves or is led by people who share the same standpoint, or even are, the research subjects. Hopefully universities will continue to recognise the benefits of participatory action research, recognise that the relationships it generates are a valuable asset and tool for managing risk, and not shy away from any ‘difficult risks’ it may present.

Image: 'victorian risk assessment cartoon' by John C Bullas BSc MSc PhD MCIHT MIAT via Flickr.  Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0):

Thursday 19 September 2019

Why we need to celebrate our PostDocs

Annette Bramley, Director of N8 Research Partnership

It is no exaggeration to say that without our PostDocs, research in the UK would not be what it is today. PostDoc researchers go out into our businesses, charities and government as well as into lecturing positions in this country and internationally. However, given the increasing numbers of PostDocs in research, not matched by increasing numbers of permanent academic positions globally, there is a clear mismatch between hopes and expectations of a career in academia, and the reality. This can lead to frustration and pressure to deliver high impact outputs while at the same time having to build a life on the precarious foundations of short term contracts.

This week is National PostDoc Appreciation Week, a social campaign running from the 16th to 20th September, and an opportunity for research institutions and figures to thank those who are essential figures to their cause. With a reported four PostDocs out of 30 securing permanent academic posts with a significant research component, what does tweeting appreciation for a PostDoc prove?

Of course, saying “thank you” to our PostDocs will not solve the structural issues for this group in the sector but, I hope, it will go some way to ensuring that our colleagues across the N8 Research Partnership feel more valued and recognised for their hard work and dedication to research.

Public recognition, in particular, is important. A clear demonstration of our gratitude and appreciation, because Postdoctoral researchers make up a crucial part of the research and academic body in our universities. Nurturing and developing this talent is vital to generating new knowledge and innovation – for the N8, that means a focus on the Northern universities of our Partnership, as well as encouraging future generations of researchers in the Northern Powerhouse. We want to highlight the diversity within our PostDoc population and the vast range of contributions they make to ensuring that the N8 is a vibrant and successful research powerhouse in the North of England.

Professional researchers in their own right, these highly skilled individuals also turn their hands to mentoring, knowledge exchange, public engagement and training junior researchers and students.

Multidisciplinary research teams, like N8AgriFood, tend to have PostDoctoral researchers from a range of subject backgrounds working alongside each other. This is a fantastic career development opportunity for a PostDoc and leads to much better research outcomes for the Programme. The research benefits from bringing different perspectives and knowledge to bear on a problem; the PostDocs benefit from learning about other areas of research and the peer support that working in a larger team can bring.

One look at the #N8PostDocs hashtag on Twitter gives you some idea of the range of skills and projects that this diverse group undertakes; simply too many to list here.

But movements like this are just one aspect. This support needs to be just one stream leading to improving career structures and we have been looking at how we can tackle this for PostDocs within our universities. The ‘Prosper’ programme led by the University of Liverpool is looking at how to equip the first-time PostDoc with skills and experiences that will open up a wider range of potential careers. In time we intend for this to be rolled out across the N8.

Although more steps need to be made, we believe this is one great first step onto that ladder. But we need your help to reach out and show appreciation to the thousands of PostDocs who work in the N8 universities.

Here’s how to get involved:
  • Download the Thank You poster and Thank You graphics from the N8 website:
  • Fill out the poster with details of some outstanding work or contributions made by one of your team, and post a photo to Twitter 
  • Or just simply post the Thank you graphic to Twitter, with a message of gratitude 
  • Don’t forget to use the hashtag #N8PostDocs, and tag your postdocs!

Friday 6 September 2019

Health inequalities in rural and coastal areas

Last November we, a team of Fuse academics, were successful in winning competitive funding from Public Health England (PHE) and given just four months to complete a rapid evidence review investigating health inequalities in older populations in coastal and rural areas. The team from Northumbria University and led by myself, consisted of Professor Katie Brittain a Social Gerontologist and Dr Sonia Dalkin Co-lead of the Fuse Healthy Ageing Research Programme (HARP). Read a case study about the review on the HARP pages of the Fuse Website.

The short timescale and vast quantity of literature made this a challenging project from the outset but the evidence was urgently needed to provide recommendations for taking an asset-based approach to reducing inequalities and promoting productive healthy ageing in rural and coastal areas. We worked closely, consulting and collaborating, with stakeholders including PHE Centre leads, Knowledge and Libraries Service, the Health Inequalities Team and Director of Public Health representatives from rural and coastal authorities. Key partners were approached from the start to recommend grey literature and case studies.

One hundred and eleven studies later the report is finally published and launched by our colleagues at Public Health England with this great blog showing how we age is strongly influenced by our environment, including where we live.

Katie Haighton, Associate Professor in Public Health, Northumbria University

How we age is strongly influenced by our environment, including where we live

Helen Brock - Programme Manager for Adults & Older Adults at Public Health England
Dr Rashmi Shukla - Director, Midlands and East of England at Public Health England

The impact of where we live

The long-term trend in life expectancy in the UK has been upwards; however, our experience of getting older varies across the nation. Some people have good physical and mental health well into old age, whereas others become frail or ill.

How we age is strongly influenced by our environment, including where we live. For both men and women, there is a 19-year difference in healthy life expectancy between those living in the most and the least deprived areas of the country.

Whether or not we live in an urban setting can also make a difference. While many of our country’s rural and coastal areas are picturesque, they can present significant challenges to protecting the health of the local population.

Our new evidence review builds on the existing evidence and suggests that older people living in rural or coastal areas may experience specific inequalities in their physical and mental health.

With almost 10 million of us living in rural areas, and older people making up a growing number of this group, it is important to understand why these health inequalities exist so that we can help to tackle them.

The evidence review aims to provide a synthesis of the evidence to support leaders in local areas in their efforts to reduce health inequalities.

Why are there public health inequalities in rural and coastal areas?

There are several drivers of health inequalities in rural and coastal areas.

One significant factor is social exclusion and isolation. Research suggests that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 30%.

Rural and coastal areas can face infrastructure challenges, with many villages and small towns lacking frequent and reliable public transport and high-speed internet. Having sufficient numbers of healthcare workers and carers in certain areas is an additional problem.

However, living in a rural or coastal area also has benefits. Rural places often have a strong sense of community, easier access to green space and lower crime rates than urban areas. ONS figures indicate that a higher proportion of people living in rural areas feel a sense of belonging and safety in their neighbourhood compared to people living in urban areas. Coastal environments may also provide benefits, through increased opportunities for physical activity as well as the restorative and stress-reducing impact of blue space (water).

What can we do to reduce these inequalities?

Local government and NHS partners, alongside the voluntary and community sectors, play a key role in taking action to improve the health and wellbeing of their populations.

PHE and NICE recognise that local interventions which bring communities together are some of the most valuable in addressing rural public health challenges.

Good social relationships and engagement in community life are necessary for good mental health and can help people become more resilient. By providing and maintaining community areas, green spaces and promoting public and community transport, councils can help to create a positive local environment and tackle social isolation.

Creating communities

Community activities such as lunch clubs can encourage older people to socialise and participate in community life. Bringing groups together in a village hall or other community space also provides the opportunity to reach older people with services, helping them to look after their wellbeing.

It is important to encourage social connections and contact for those in marginalised groups, who may be particularly affected by social exclusion. Involving older men who often find it harder than women to make friends later in life and may be reluctant to engage in community activities or social groups can also be a challenge.

Men’s Sheds is a programme that provides a place for older men in rural communities to participate in physical activities and projects such as gardening, woodwork and model-building. The initiative helps older men to meet, socialise and learn new skills, alleviating social isolation and creating a sense of purpose. With over 480 Sheds open in the UK, and more than 100 in development, it’s estimated that over 11,000 ‘Shedders’ are benefitting from Men’s Sheds across the country.

Promoting physical activity and making use of natural assets

There is potential for coastal and rural areas to use their natural assets to promote physical activity and reduce social isolation, for example, through volunteer-led walking groups or outdoor activities.

‘Stepping into Nature’ is a project led by Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty using Dorset’s natural and cultural landscape to provide activities and sensory-rich places for older people, including those with dementia and their carers. It seeks to increase physical and mental wellbeing, to reduce social isolation and loneliness, and to increase confidence and motivation for people to access the countryside.

Promoting and normalising physical activity as part of the experience of daily living for older people living in sheltered housing or residential care settings can result in further benefits.

In rural Norfolk, Active Norfolk – a partnership of organisations working to encourage people to participate in sport and physical activity – trialled Mobile Me, a physical activity programme for older people funded through Sport England.

For ten weeks, Mobile Me visited 65 sheltered housing and residential care homes to encourage them to get moving through games such as bowls and table tennis. The programme helped to reduce older peoples’ sedentary behaviour and fear of falling as well as increasing overall wellbeing.

Harnessing technology

Technology can be useful for providing care services to older people in the country’s most remote areas.

NHS Highland recently trialled video conferencing in remote care homes to allow doctors to speak to dementia patients in a familiar setting without the need for extensive travel.

The technology enabled care home residents to be assessed and reviewed more quickly and monitored more regularly. Video conferencing also helped care home staff to access specialist knowledge and advice more easily, helping them to feel more confident and actively involved in their residents’ care.

However, it’s important to find a balance between remote and direct face-to-face contact that many older people value.

Supporting local areas

With advances in healthcare and a greater understanding of how healthy lifestyles, supportive communities and environments can help us to live longer, enabling older people to lead fulfilling lives for as long as possible is more important than ever.

Recognising the health inequalities faced by people in different areas of the country, including rural and coastal places, is a crucial step to ensuring that all older people have the opportunities and care relevant to their needs, no matter where they live.

PHE’s evidence review seeks to share what is known about these issues, so that through Locality Plans, local Health and Wellbeing Strategies and other mechanisms, local authorities and the NHS locally are supported to prioritise work to address the health inequalities that exist within and between coastal and rural areas.

To find out more you can read the full report: An evidence summary of health inequalities in older populations in coastal and rural areas. You can also read our rural health report produced with the Local Government Association: Health and wellbeing in rural areas, and our recent health inequalities report: Place-based approaches for reducing health inequalities.

Reproduced with thanks to Public Health England and Exposure: