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Embedding researchers

Dr. Katherine Kirk is a lecturer in organisational behaviour in healthcare and an NIHR fellow. In this blog, she writes about her work with embedded researchers and ways to make sure research findings are applied to the real world.

Published: 27 November 2023

The role of an embedded researcher

There is a recurring problem in health research: how do you make sure that research findings are relevant and applied to the real world and at a local level?

Embedded researchers can be a solution to this problem.

Embedded researchers work in healthcare settings, such as hospitals, in partnership with health and care professionals. Working together, these researchers and healthcare teams design research studies and come up with recommendations to improve daily practice. As they’ve been created by people working in the field, the recommendations are more likely to be relevant and adaptable to the need of other healthcare teams.

The practice is becoming more popular, but has it been effective at transferring research knowledge into daily practice? My research team and I were keen to understand how these partnerships work and how they could be harnessed to lead to positive change in the NHS.

One thing in common, one challenge and one solution

I worked with 4 schemes that included embedded researchers. My team and I interviewed these researchers and observed them for a year. They all had one key thing in common; all embedded researchers really wanted to make a difference to their local services.

But it wasn’t just embedded researchers, this motivation was also shared by patients and members of the public, healthcare managers and clinicians. We interviewed a variety of people involved in the schemes and found that most schemes evolve over time, rather than being carefully planned from the outset. They also varied a lot in terms of their intent, structure, process and activities.

This poses challenges for embedded researchers as they have to adapt to changing demands during a project. They told me they quite often found it difficult to juggle the priorities presented by their clinical and academic roles. With changing priorities and changes within their teams, their role as researchers became unclear and they lost a sense of belonging in their new team.

As a solution, embedded researchers gained support from wider networks and people at a strategic level, bringing focus back to the bigger picture and ensuring that research findings become embedded in daily practice.

Supporting healthcare managers to support researchers

Along with other colleagues on our study, we suggested a long-term solution and published a new resource pack, the Embedded Research Design Framework. It helps healthcare managers to embed researchers within their teams and makes co-production more effective.

The resource pack includes advice on the set-up of schemes, recruitment and support. It also covers the types of projects that are good for embedded researchers to get involved in, the skills that are needed and measures of success.

We want to offer a structured approach to managers, so they can support researchers from the early stage of setting up a project. We want managers to consider the pressures embedded researchers have when needing to split their time between their academic and clinical settings.

There’s still much more research to be done in this area. We still need to work out the best ways to attract researchers to work within healthcare teams. This way of working has the potential to change the way that research is generated and adopted across healthcare teams, making a real difference in the NHS. If research findings can be adopted quickly and smoothly, everyone wins. Co-production doesn’t have to be restricted to healthcare either, there are many other disciplines where embedded researcher schemes could make a big difference.

Learn more about different paths in research as part of our Shape the Future campaign.

Find out more about Dr Kirk’s research on NIHR Evidence or read the full report in the NIHR Journals Library.

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