The future of health communication research is speeding toward us. If you’re in health communication and you conduct research–or if your job depends on research conducted by others–this episode is for you. Health communication researchers I’ve met have been asking important questions about the future, and grappling with current limitations. Learn 5 ways to expand your toolkit, whether or not you’re the one collecting the data.
Today’s episode is about research, and one common research problem I’m seeing in communication at health care– whether it’s patient communication, interprofessional communication, health literacy— and impacts all of us, whether or not we’re the ones collecting the data. We’ll get into that problem and I’ll tell you five things you can do if you conduct, read, or are a fan of research about communication in healthcare.
Hi everybody, I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. This is 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners, an independent health equity focused communication and education consultancy. Today’s episode sponsored by Maven Roth group. For many people, the hardships and changes resulting from the pandemic have shifted priorities. Maven Roth had seen these effects ripple through society. The same old messages just don’t resonate with people now. Because of this, Maven Roth is helping organizations evolve their messaging to better meet their audiences’ new priorities. Maven Roth can refresh your marketing to reflect today’s changes. Visit MavenRoth.com today.
So you care about health communication. Have you ever been working on or with a research project, and started to feel like there’s got to be more to this than meets the eye? That voice in your head that says, “Close, but not quite!” It’s frustrating, whether you’re a researcher or someone whose job relies on research. The problem I’m talking about is when we know, or at least strongly suspect, that there are facets or elements of the problem we’re researching that are not being captured in our current research processes. I’ve heard people talk about data that can’t find a home; important considerations that experience tells us should be there but just aren’t; questions that you want to ask but they don’t seem to be the right kinds of questions, are unaskable. Again this can be frustrating.
I’m sharing this today because it seems every week now, in my inbox there’s another message or another webinar asking excellent questions about the future of research in healthcare, specifically regarding health equity. Now, a long time ago when I was an undergrad, I knew I wanted to be a researcher. And I knew it had to do with language somehow. Fast forward many years, I get my doctorate and like the complete geek that I am, I took extra research methods courses, so I have both qualitative research methods and quantitative research methods in my background. You know literacy has been part of my entire career, including research. I always loved helping my students craft researchable questions around their interests. What I’m sharing is in large part informed by my experience in higher ed, and also as a consultant. As a consultant, I can do a lot of things, but what I get asked to do most often is this: help organizations in health and digital health to improve their communication and education, specifically with diverse groups. And this always involves research in one way or another.
Since I first set foot in the health sector, I’ve heard people talk about this problem of feeling frustrated or wanting to do more than it seems their research tools allow. Like present methods just weren’t allowing researchers to capture and explore all that they’re finding in their data collection. Lately, I’ve been hearing more people asking about how different strands of research might be integrated so that research attention can be balanced, or given in areas with communities that are often overlooked or under-represented. Overall, there’s this kind of sense that there’s more to it, something is missing. People know that there’s a gap, a silence, an unhelpful limit. Well, this problem I think runs deeper than it might seem. I’ve been listening and reading and working on this, and I have something I want to share that might be helpful.
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Some, or maybe even the most of this problem, can be put down to the tools and inherited ways of working we get from our disciplines. For years, we’ve all been working with a certain tool set, in a certain research approach, that has a certain history, that works on certain sets of assumptions about reality and truth and the nature of knowledge. These ways of working to have certain pros and cons. Or, if I want to get fancy, I can say all research paradigms have constraints and affordances. They all have tools, right, that are very good at doing the tasks for which they were designed, for instance. But because we’ve only been using typically kind of one set of tools, one set of lenses, this necessarily limits what parts of a problem we can work on. Those other parts are still there and they still need working on. And I think that’s the frustration I’ve been hearing from researchers. That’s sometimes why some of my clients call me.
There’s even more to it than this! We can get personally attached to the research or disciplinary traditions that we came from and that we still work in. Methodologists have pointed out that the approach we’ve been educated with and socialized into can actually become entwined with our identity. That is, how we do what we do professionally when it comes to research can become part of Who We Are. This in itself isn’t problematic, but it can make it hard to remember that there are other ways do this, right?! There are other research approaches. There are other ways of working. There are other tools and sets of assumptions. And you know I’ve said it can be tricky for anyone to see the water that that they’re swimming in, right?
Another part of this problem affects all of us. The same research approaches tend to lead to the same kinds of questions being asked. This means you get similar kinds of studies being conducted. There’s nothing wrong with these questions or studies. But this tendency can unintentionally a limit the knowledge base on whatever that topic is. It can also lead to the sense that everything worth knowing about the topic is already known. Because you get this feeling, “It’s saturated! We don’t need another study on blah-blah!” Well, sure, it might be saturated from a certain research orientation, but what about others?
Remember this is about more equitable communication, more equitable education, more equitable care, more equitable workplaces. This is about putting equity front-and-center and using all we’ve got to get there! I’ve said before, such work is going to take collaboration and different kinds of expertise.
When we see that there are other tasks that need doing, or we understand a problem differently all of a sudden, or maybe new problems come up, it’s sometimes means we can modify the tools that we’re used to working with. Sometimes it makes sense to use a different set of tools. And I talk about this because this is what I do for my clients: I come in, I offer specific tools and lenses, I help them find new tools, develop different tools or approaches, activities, how-to research steps–whatever clients need most. Fortunately you’re listening right now, and to expand your own tool kit when it comes to reading or conducting research, you don’t have to start from scratch. I have five things I’m going to share with you that I hope will be helpful.
#1. Well you’re kind of doing it right now: this series! We’re at 50,000 downloads almost entirely by word of mouth and that’s because people hear something different here. Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s the research, folks! I listen hard to the problems my clients raise and the problems that you’ve written to me by email or social media. I try to choose specific research tools that would be appropriate for the questions and problems that you that you raise. Part of the work I do in this series is making these alternatives available to you. Alternative questions, alternative approaches, make the stuff askable, imaginable–and this includes research questions.
#2. Stay curious and stay humble. Methodologists have been working for decades on how we can cross the streams of different research approaches. And some of their advice includes encouraging us toward openness to critique; a decline of confrontational stances; more fruitful dialogue among competing paradigms; and an avoidance of simplistic representation of others’ paradigms.
#3. If you’re feeling the frustration, trust yourself! Many people in medicine and public health have degrees or certifications in something else. If this is you, let yourself go back in your imagination to the kinds of questions and concerns that you saw and heard in other disciplines in your life.
#4. Allow yourself to entertain the possibility that someone, somewhere is already researching a question like the one that’s on your mind. Let yourself hop on Google Scholar and explore journals in other fields.
And #5. Don’t be afraid to ask those out-of-the-box questions. Listen to that listen to that voice in your head that says, “Close, but not quite.” Go ahead and identify the questions you have, the research priorities you have–even if they don’t seem to fit with what you’ve been seeing in the field so far. Then you’ve got a question to tell people about, which may make finding collaborators easier.
And of course you can write me! I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel on Twitter, Linked, HealthCommunicationPartners.com. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. This has been 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners. Audio engineering and music by Joe Liebel. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel, thanks for listening.