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Abstract

Background and rationale: Residents of Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees tend to have poorer health outcomes and shorter live expectancy than the average person in England due to health inequalities caused by social and economic issues. Additionally, the region has been severely affected by COVID-19 and a cost-of-living crisis. Both councils have established a Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy to improve the health and wellbeing of people living in the boroughs and to reduce inequalities. A Health Determinants Research Collaboration (HDRC) is currently being established between Teesside University and councils in Middlesbrough and Redcar & Cleveland to actively participate, use and develop research to inform innovation in practice and deliver real and sustainable impacts to population health. Both Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees are likely to benefit from a similar HDRC with the University. However, to help determine the feasibility of HDRCs for both councils, it is necessary to assess the need for staff training and the views and attitudes of council staff and community members towards research.

Aims and methods: The present study, conducted by experts at Teesside University in collaboration with Public Health at Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees, aimed to help position Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees for future opportunities by understanding their research needs, priorities, and capacity to develop a research culture and governance that would enable them to become more research-active. Two online surveys with council staff (82 respondents from Hartlepool and 80 from Stockton-on-Tees), 17 in-depth interviews with staff, and five focus groups with community members were conducted to gain insight into staff’s research training needs as well as elicit the views and attitudes of staff and community members towards research and establishing a research culture in both councils.

Results: Survey results for both councils indicated that staff attitudes towards using research in their role were positive, with most seeing it as important. However, fewer than half of respondents had experience in conducting research. Training and mentorship were considered important prerequisites to conducting research. Barriers to developing a research culture included lack of time, funding, lack of research resources and experience, and being unsure where to start. Interviews with staff in both councils revealed five central themes:
1. Developing personal research skills through higher education or ‘on the job’, and an appetite for skill development
2. A variety of experience of conducting research in one’s current role
3. Practical and organisational barriers to conducting research
4. Research as a valuable part of one’s current role, and the perceived ambiguous attitudes of councils to research
5. An interest in contributing to a research culture, and potential barriers to implementation
Staff often developed personal research skills through higher education or ‘on the job’, and nearly all wished to further develop their research skills. There was a variety of experience of conducting research in one’s current role, with some using research as part of their day-to-day work, whilst others used it infrequently. Practical and organisational barriers to conducting research were experienced, most notably a lack of time, and lack of support from employers. Still, research was overwhelmingly seen as a valuable part of one’s current role, despite the perceived ambiguous attitudes of councils towards research, and staff had overall had a significant interest in contributing to a research culture.

Three central themes emerged for community members:
1. Community group involvement as a positive experience
2. Strengths, capabilities, and challenges faced by community groups
3. The importance of community-led research

Community members spoke of the benefits of community groups in building a good relationship with the Council as well as promoting cohesiveness in the community; however, challenges around engaging and retaining members were discussed. In relation to the councils, issues around maintaining autonomy from the Council to focus on the perceived priorities of the community were observed, and it was expressed that there should be greater recognition of the contribution that the work of community groups makes to the health of the local population.

Discussion and recommendations: Our study demonstrates that whilst valuable research skills are developed by council staff on the job as well as through higher education, most do not have the opportunity to use research as part of their role, and there is both a need and an appetite for research skill development in staff of both councils. Research is overall seen as valuable and necessary by council staff and community members alike, but there are perceived barriers to its implementation on the part of staff, both on the individual as well as on the organisational level. Furthermore, some community members feel it is important that there be more autonomy for the community to set the agenda and determine its research priorities. As strategies for promoting a research culture and enhancing research activities in both councils, is recommended that both foster an environment that values research, build partnerships with external organisations such as Teesside University, co-produce research with community members in collaboration with the University, and set up a memorandum of understanding with the University to establish a framework for cooperation and collaboration. These strategies aim to encourage research evidence-based decision-making and enhance the credibility and impact of research activities in both councils. There were no grounds to submit a joint application for a future HDRC due to both Councils having different directors of public health and no joint functions which would mean that a joint application would not be successful, therefore separate applications will be developed, and a stage one application with Hartlepool has already been submitted in 2023. Discussion should take place in regard to submitting an application for a HDRC in Stockton-on-Tees in 2024.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2023

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