Engaging the public in applied health research

Jon Sutton reports.

A group of psychologists at the University of Kent are making an impact on applied health research, finding innovative ways to involve the public through interactive activities on topics such as dementia, mindfulness and wellbeing.

Dr Kate Hamilton-West, a Chartered Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent’s Centre for Health Services Studies (CHSS), spoke to us about the importance of embedding research and researchers within local communities and wider society. ‘Applied health research often involves working as part of a multidisciplinary team, with academics and clinicians specialising in fields such as public health, primary care, health economics and statistics and with members of the public acting as lay advisers or experts-by-experience,’ she said. ‘This latter role is crucial for ensuring that researchers ask questions which are relevant to end-users, that research methods are appropriate and outputs have the potential to be implemented into practice. Without appropriate public involvement researchers run the risk of investing time and resources into projects with limited public impact.’

Dr Hamilton-West was part of a team led by Amanda Bates, CHSS Public Engagement Officer and a PhD student in applied psychology at the University of Kent, which put on a ‘Let’s Talk About Health Research’ event. Held in a community centre in Canterbury, the day also involved CHSS psychologists Sarah Hotham and David Lowery, as well as Nicola Enright, a service user who has long-standing links with CHSS, and Leah Thorn, a Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence hosted within CHSS. Interactive activities included screenings of Thorn’s film ‘Watch’, which explores the impact of dementia on a father/daughter relationship; a mindfulness eating exercise; and ‘Picture of Health’ (drawings by members of the public illustrating what ‘health’ means to them). Researchers discussed research relating to these themes, and delegates were encouraged to share their perceptions and experiences of health research.

‘More than 100 people attended the event and feedback was highly positive,’ Dr Hamilton-West tells us. ‘To help drive some of the day’s ideas forward, we are developing a Patient and Public Involvement Group including local people willing to act as “critical friends” to our research. We’re also showing our ongoing commitment to public engagement through a series of open lectures – the next one is 6 October, on remote video consultations.’

To find out more about opportunities to get involved with CHSS research, see www.kent.ac.uk/chss/public/involve.html

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