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Brian Webster-Henderson: Remove the barriers to nurse research

Nurses and allied health professionals are far less likely than doctors or pharmacists to focus on research, but this needs to change, says the chair of the Council of Deans of Health. 

Nurses and allied health professionals are far less likely than doctors or pharmacists to focus on research, but this needs to change, says the chair of the Council of Deans of Health

Research led by nurses, midwives and allied health professionals results in older people falling less, fewer infections in hospital, better rehabilitation for stroke survivors, improved rates of return to work after illness, improved maternity services and better mental healthcare. Statistics on research excellence speak for themselves: 81% of research that includes nurses, midwives and allied health professionals is rated as either world leading (31%) or internationally excellent (50%), bettering the national average relative to other subjects by 5%.

Marginalised

Although our disciplines are rated high in the Research Excellence Framework the system for assessing the quality of research in higher education the support for nurses,

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Nurses and allied health professionals are far less likely than doctors or pharmacists to focus on research, but this needs to change, says the chair of the Council of Deans of Health 


Picture: Alamy

Research led by nurses, midwives and allied health professionals results in older people falling less, fewer infections in hospital, better rehabilitation for stroke survivors, improved rates of return to work after illness, improved maternity services and better mental healthcare. Statistics on research excellence speak for themselves: 81% of research that includes nurses, midwives and allied health professionals is rated as either world leading (31%) or internationally excellent (50%), bettering the national average relative to other subjects by 5%.

Marginalised

Although our disciplines are rated high in the Research Excellence Framework – the system for assessing the quality of research in higher education – the support for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals to carry out research remains low. Even in academia our disciplines are overrepresented in teaching and rate low in research activity.

In 2015-16, 69.8% of academic staff in nursing and allied health had contracts that included research. This compares to 91.2% of academic staff in clinical medicine, 80.2% in pharmacy and pharmacology and 71.5% in social work and social policy. Academic staff in nursing and allied health were far less likely to have research as the sole focus of their role, with just 7.8% on research-only contracts, compared to 63.2% in clinical medicine, 30.6% in pharmacy and pharmacology and 15.7% in social work and social policy.

We know, anecdotally, that barriers to carrying out research include lack of time, organisational investment and specific training. Busy professionals in practice also report lack of employer support to release them to do research and, when they do succeed, process gets in the way in the form of contracts, pension schemes and higher education rules. However, we also have evidence to show what makes a good research environment and how it can lead to more professionals joining the research family.

Learn from excellence

Our analysis reveals that high-performing research units in nursing, midwifery and allied health professions have robust staffing strategies, which focus on recruiting and retaining a high-quality workforce.

Universities with strong research performance encourage people to initiate research collaborations, establish a variety of staff training opportunities, invest in a physical infrastructure that enables researchers to undertake multifaceted research activities, and use academic clinical fellowship programmes to build research capacity. They also foster partnerships with stakeholders including clinicians, patients and industry, develop future research leaders and build national and international partnerships. Global collaboration and exchange of good practice are key.

Good research environments lead to good research outcomes. It is only by learning from excellence and transferring good practice from one institution to another that we can build the research workforce of the future. But it is not only systems and investment in people and infrastructure that will help us get there. We also need changes in mindset and culture. The image of healthcare professionals as scientists doing research and using evidence as part of their everyday practice is a good starting point.

Brian Webster-Henderson is chair of the Council of Deans of Health

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