Research placements can help health professionals ground their practice in evidence

With increasing pressure on placements, not least due to Covid-19, research placements offer an innovative way to infuse evidence into professional practice, argue Dorothea Baltruks and Robyn Cooke.

Dorothea Baltruks is senior policy and research officer at the Council of Deans of Health.


Robyn Cooke is senior research and policy officer at Council of Deans of Health.

“Evidence-based practice” – if you’ve read any document to do with healthcare professional practice, that term will have popped up everywhere. But how do healthcare professionals learn to use the latest evidence in their practice? And who creates this evidence?

A key answer to that lies with universities of course. Their healthcare researchers are assiduously producing the latest evidence on rehabilitation practices for long Covid, on effective wound care practices, or on reducing the incidence of stillbirth in black women.

Creating space for research

At the Council of Deans of Health, we have been investigating for some years now how universities can make all healthcare students confident consumers of research and inspire some of them to become the next generation of researchers.

The regulators of nursing, midwifery and allied health professions require healthcare programmes to support and develop evidence-based practice. Registered allied health professionals are expected to draw on knowledge and research to inform practice, understand the value of research and research methodologies, and assess and evaluate evidence.

There are lots of ways universities are already incorporating research into healthcare programmes including skills sessions on data synthesis, modules on research methods and research projects. Despite this, a recent Council report identified that students’ exposure to research does vary and that competing curriculum demands make it hard for universities to dedicate enough time to research activity.

A relatively new model to foster interest in research among healthcare students is the provision of research placements. Nursing and midwifery students have to complete 2,300 hours in practice as part of their degree. In the main, those placements take place in hospitals, community services, GP practices and other healthcare settings. With pressure on placement capacity an ever-present issue, universities increasingly use innovative placements – including those with a research focus.

On a research placement, the student usually works on a research project at an NHS Trust and/or the university, often combined with clinical practice. They may help with data collection and analysis, literature review or other stages of the research process.

Changing the image of research

As an adult nursing student at Hertfordshire University said about her research placement at a Council of Deans of Health webinar that was part of our Research Month 2021, research is at the heart of everything a nurse does.

To expand this potential, we also have to change the perception of research being “boring” and separate from practice to being a key part of every profession, the ground on which every improvement in practice is built, and the chance to improve the care and quality of life for patients.

Allowing students to “see it, hear it, feel it and do it”, is how universities can successfully get students to go beyond just being exposed to research. A research placement enables students to engage practically and not just theoretically in research, providing them with a tangible link to evidence-informed practice and why it matters.

Healthcare research is enriched by its interdisciplinary nature and a research placement allows students to be aware of, and work with, different healthcare professionals. It shows them roles and career pathways that they might not have known existed, outside those shown on television or by the media.

Covid – good for research, bad for researchers

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the importance of healthcare research to the forefront. Healthcare research funding bodies across the UK reacted quickly and provided a myriad of new funding opportunities and projects that are now ongoing.

Covid-19 has, however, also provided a huge challenge to existing healthcare research. From researchers who have found themselves isolated at home – often with unexpected caring responsibilities – to those who had to pause their data collection where Covid restrictions and restructuring in practice came in the way, or who took on a temporary full-time role in the NHS to help the national effort. Uncertainty about reduced funding for PhDs, fellowships and research projects also causes concern.

Hopefully when the barriers posed by Covid are eased, healthcare researchers can continue to progress their critical work. The right support is needed though to sustain and develop the research workforce, ensure its diversity and restore fragmented research communities.

When the spotlight that Covid has put on healthcare research dims, its importance cannot be forgotten. Ensuring research is part of university healthcare programmes and its links to practice are understood by all students, will produce the evidence-informed healthcare workforce needed to meet the health demands of the future.

 

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