The Heart Language of Health Research

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I was listening to a presentation recently from Dr Dee Abimbola  talking about the brilliant work she is leading in Liverpool to support the development of dementia champions from black and ethic minority groups within the City. Dee used a term which resonated with me when she spoke about the importance of the champions speaking peoples’ “heart language”.

You know how some phrases you hear just grab your attention, make a connection and send your mind spinning off into another orbit? Well this one not only landed with me but distracted me. I’m sure the rest of the presentation was great but my mind had gone else where, pondering the possibilities of a heart language, wondering what one is and where the phrase came from.

Where would we be with search engines? Looking it up it is (of course) a quote from Nelson Mandela:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language,that goes to his heart”

Which started me thinking about the heart language of researchers and the research community. What is the language that goes to our hearts? A language that goes to my heart as a researcher is one that touches fundamental values I hold about why research is important to me. This is not about the impact of my research on others it is something far more personal than that. It is about my relationship with it.

It isn’t the language I use in textbooks or academic papers, in fact when I think about it, it isn’t a language I use very often in public as it is subsumed and silenced by the conventions surrounding research, formal presentations and academic publishing. Why is that?

I am sure that all researchers have a research heart language and it is one that is given voice when the community comes together, not in the formal halls where presentations are given, but in the informal spaces where people meet to talk about new ideas, forge new collaborations or just share their experiences.

It appears, occasionally, when any researcher is asked to talk about why they do research. Even if you haven’t a clue what they are talking about, on such occasions, you will not only hear it but you will sense it.  It is a language that is bubbling to be freed and, on being given the right prompt, ‘tell me about your research’ bursts forth. You may also witness the moment when it is reigned in if it becomes apparent that language isn’t shared. If you are a researcher you will no doubt have caught yourself connecting with your heart language getting swept away by it and then seeing ‘the look’ on someone’s face as you realise it was a polite enquiry.

The heart language of research is exciting and driven by passion. There is a shift in dynamic, the pace picks up, the heart beats faster, the conversation becomes animated. The language is no longer about study design, statistics, data analysis it is the language of possibility, of deep connection, where the boundaries of new knowledge are stretched and the passion that drives researchers is voiced.

This is the language that energies and sustains us and the reason why anyone undertaking research values occasions when they come together as part of a community speaking to their heart language. I think it is also the language that needs a greater public voice if, as a community, we want to inspire others to engage with research.

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A culture of research in the NHS: an aspiration in search of a story.

A spring showerSupporting, developing, working in, embedding, all terms applied on a regular basis to the culture of research being sought within the NHS. The ability of such a culture to improve population health and patient outcomes is taken as given. Expectations are placed on clinical teams, managers and individuals to engage actively in its development and growth. Frustration is expressed frequently about the challenges of embedding such a culture within clinical practice and I have lost count of the number of meetings I have attended where the barriers to achieving this are discussed and debated. It is indeed a focus of research in its own right.

So here’s a question I keep coming back to, what does a culture of research in the NHS mean to you? If someone was to ask you to describe it what would you say? When we talk about a culture of research how clear are we about what it is that we are striving to build? What would it feel like to work in such a culture, what would people be doing differently, what would people be talking about and importantly what story would they tell about it?

Key stakeholders driving this agenda are often external to the NHS Trusts they seek to influence. Established with a remit to deliver on specific agendas which, when combined, would indeed deliver a thriving culture of research and innovation. But here in lies the challenge, it feels like an elaborate layer cake with air, rather than filling, between the layers. Depending upon which networking event, workshop or meeting you attend as a clinician you will be encouraged to increase recruitment of participants to clinical trials, embrace the implementation of innovation, work collaboratively with academia and industry to innovate, engage in applied health research, work collaboratively with universities and industry on externally funded research projects and develop your own research skills and expertise. Each stakeholder tells its own carefully crafted story. Each story is told in the language of the respective organisation, accessible to those involved in its creation.

In storytelling there is a narrative structure called the composite story, described as:

a collection of short stories in which the narratives are specifically composed and arranged with the goal of creating an enhanced or different experience when reading the group as a whole as opposed to its individual parts. (S.Mann, (1989). The Short Story Cycle. New York: Greenwood Press.)

In my mind the development of a composite story about a culture of research within the NHS would enable each of the leading protagonists to craft their own story but, importantly, the layers of stories would not stand alone suspended in space as is the case currently. A layer of filling would be inserted between the layers to hold them together.

Anyone involved in undertaking qualitative research may see the obvious link with the process of making sense of data.  Actively listening to people as they shape and tell their stories, sometimes at a specific juncture in their lives, sometimes over a number of years as their lives unfold. Collecting them, exploring them and then weaving them together.

When I embarked upon my research journey in the 1980s the development of a composite story or master narrative from data was often the sole domain of the researcher. However 30 years on these stories are more likely to be co-created with the people whose stories are being told. The co-creation is seen as a mechanism for increasing the authenticity and authority of the story.

And this is where my thinking is at the moment, what would the composite story surrounding a culture of research in the NHS be if it was co-created? If we were able to work with the different stories being told currently to blend and meld them into something which was greater than the sum of its parts, co-created and written in a language accessible to all.