Research and development

All good health interventions start with a simple action: Listening

19 April 2022
5 min read

Our Chief Executive, Kieron Boyle, reflects on how community research can improve health and wellbeing.

On 24 March, The Young Foundation invited Kieron Boyle, our Chief Executive, to join a panel discussion during the Hive conference. The event was a chance for funders and commissioners to discuss community research and how it can improve people’s health. These are the key reflections and insights Kieron shared during the discussion. 

1. Our experience with community research

We know that different approaches to research can have different consequences for people’s health. That’s why, in 2019, we partnered with The Social Innovation Partnership (TSIP) to develop a research model centred around principles of community leadership and co-ownership.  

TSIP created a model which involves recruiting researchers from communities and using their awareness, knowledge and relationships to deliver nuanced insights. These insights frequently painted a different — and clearer — picture than we were seeing from other types of research. 

The community research model is centred on listening to people’s experiences. It keeps people informed about how their insights are used and includes people as interventions are designed. It also supports people to hold funders and commissioners to account and make sure interventions really work for them. 

To put this community research into practice, at Impact on Urban Health we worked with the Wellcome Trust to support TSIP to incubate a new organisation, called Centric. We’re delighted that Centric is now a fully independent organisation, carrying out fantastic community research in South London. It’s been designed with co-operative principles at its heart, so that its benefit stays within the communities its based in. 

2. Building health interventions with communities

Too often health research can ignore insights that are crucial to understanding the way that people’s actual experiences of their environments affect their health. This means that major drivers of ill health – for example, racism – can be overlooked in health research. This in turn can lead to mistrust of research and the initiatives built off the back of it. 

When we first started speaking with local communities, we were approaching them with external ideas and asking people to engage with them. That has its place but also its limitations. We weren’t giving people enough opportunities to shape the research with their own ideas, and the risk was that communities weren’t engaging. You can’t hear fresh insights unless you’re listening to what people have to say. 

Following our work with TSIP, we’ve learnt a different way of engaging residents in the areas where we want to make a difference. We’re asking more open-ended questions and starting more conversations. 

We’ve also been able to combine community research with other types of insight that we were more familiar with — for example from quantitative data, the insights of practitioners, and some of the latest academic evidence. What we’ve found is that community research isn’t an alternative to these sources. Rather, it makes them stronger. 

3. The challenges of community research for commissioners

Community research requires a shift in perspective for commissioners and funders, which can be challenging. 

At Impact on Urban Health we focus on heath equity, which means our power comes from leading by following. Many of the most important perspectives of the issues we work on – and the co-designing of the solutions to those problems – come from the bottom up.  It’s not our jobs to be experts in other people’s experiences. It’s our jobs to listen and to channel the resources people need to thrive and be well.

That can sometimes mean being prepared to work in unchartered territory and to have your agenda set, or at least shaped, by the needs of others. That raises important questions around whose voices are being heard and why.

It’s not our jobs to be experts in other people’s experiences. It’s our jobs to listen and to channel the resources people need to thrive and be well.

Keiron Boyle
Kieron Boyle Chief Executive Officer

4. Putting what we've learnt into practice

One example of how we’ve put this into practice is from our work on air pollution. 

Air pollution impacts everyone’s health but disproportionately affects certain groups of people, especially people living on lower incomes. Those who are most affected by poor air quality are less likely to contribute to overall pollution levels, and the least likely to be involved in decision making that affects the air they breathe.

We want to make sure interventions to improve air quality don’t aggravate other health inequalities and that solutions work for those most affected by poor air quality. We worked with TSIP to learn more about how those most affected view air pollution, about how interventions can be co-created, and the best ways to engage communities and shape messages about air pollution.

That work has informed some exciting projects, including working with local artists and musicians to communicate the health effects of air pollution. 

Our work with TSIP recruited 81 community members to take part in a ‘have your say’ survey, and set up an ‘Air Pollution Forum’ to discuss a variety of air pollution issues.

5. The burden on individuals

We’ve learnt that being a community researcher can be stressful. It can even surface trauma for people doing the research. 

Being a community health researcher means going out into your community and speaking to people – often your friends and neighbours – and learning about how their health is being affected by their environment. Community researchers are trained but learning about stark health inequalities, particularly where you live, can be a difficult and traumatic experience. 

We shouldn’t leave it to community research organisations alone to work with researchers to alleviate that trauma. It’s something that funders need to engage with and support.

6. Serving our communities

Working with community researchers is vital to being a more equitable funder. 

Put simply, community research provides crucial insights into the communities we’re trying to serve. That opens all kinds of opportunities because it’s a way of learning about health issues and concerns that we would otherwise have no access to. 

We’re still learning how to do this well, but we’re convinced that it’s a powerful approach.