The Next Big Things

Riverside walk, Builth Wells

Here’s what will probably be a final Hay Festival-related post. Last Thursday the Nobel Laureate Professor Sir John Sulston chaired a discussion titled The Next Big Thing. This began with four researchers talking about what they do: Alison Rust, a volcanologist; Zita Martins, an astrobiologist; Nicole Grobert, a nanotechnologist; and Jenny Nelson, a physicist working on materials for solar cells.

All gave fascinating talks, and exemplified the art of conveying complex ideas to the interested but non-specialist listener. And who doesn’t want to hear about supervolcanoes (for the record, they’re bad news, and are definitely best avoided)? Or amino acids from space, the practical applications of graphene or comparing different ways of capturing energy from the sun?

This discussion has since got me thinking about the Next Big Things in nursing and midwifery research (and mental health nursing research in particular). Generally nurses do not do fundamental or basic science, and are not in the business of discovering how bits of the natural world work. So, no volcanoes or extraterrestrial chemicals for us. But practical applications of health-related technologies, and exploring and comparing different ways of doing health work? That’s more up our street, I think, even if graphene and solar power are unlikely to immediately feature.

River Wye, Builth Wells

To the applications-of-technology and exploring-and-comparing questions which might be asked within mental health nursing I would personally add some others related to the examination of health and health care experiences. We know that mental health nurses do ‘people work’ in a big way, spend much of their time coordinating (or ‘articulating’) complex trajectories of care and are often present during service users’ critical junctures. There are applications of skill and technology in this, and how nurses do their work and the effects this has are wide-open areas for study. COCAPP, as I’ve mentioned on this site before, is aiming to distil the components of care planning and care coordination associated with recovery-oriented and personalised mental health services, and is a great example of applied research in this broad field. I’d like to think that its findings will, in some way, be directly useful to practitioners and others in the fullness of time.

But these are just my thoughts, reflecting the things that happen to interest me personally. I wonder what mental health nursing’s current, collective, priorities for research would be if people were asked? What might members of the profession see as The Next Big Things for the period immediately ahead? There are plenty of past examples of this kind of exercise being undertaken within nursing. Over a decade ago the National Coordinating Centre for NHS Service Delivery and Organisation R&D commissioned a study to ‘identify priorities for research funding in the fields of nursing and midwifery’. More recently, the Academy of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting Research (UK) conducted a Delphi study to establish areas for research commonly agreed by nurse leaders in health services and in academia. Within mental health nursing exclusively, I recall (because I’ve cited it in past publications) Ted White’s 1994 paper in the journal Mental Health Nursing titled, ‘Research priorities for community psychiatric nursing’. In its second position paper, appearing in 2004, Mental Health Nurse Academics UK set out its view of the principles to underpin future research studies and the areas it believed were in need of development.

Thinking of Graham Thornicroft’s recent editorial on the poor physical health of people using mental health services, referred to on this blog here, if asked to give their research priorities now perhaps some would make a case for researchers and practitioners to combine their efforts to seriously improve this situation. I know there are people working in this area already, but given the magnitude of the problem it seems to deserve some serious new investment. And how about extending research into the mental health nursing contribution to the vital care of older and vulnerable people, including those with dementia? Again, there are people, such as John Keady, doing this already, but possibly not in sufficient numbers. Or research in the area of quality improvement and safety? And what about workforce research, including studies into factors sustaining nurses’ resilience to provide care in conditions of adversity?

However they might be identified and emerge I suspect that any Next Big Thing candidates for nursing research will be the products of sustained collaborations. To return to last Thursday’s four discussants at Hay: all were explicit about interdisciplinarity, and the importance of crossing boundaries to do high quality research aimed at answering ‘big questions’. There are established academic mental health nurses doing this already (I’m thinking of people like Len Bowers, Karina Lovell, Patrick Callaghan and Alan Simpson), but more of us need to make friends with colleagues possessing specific substantive and methodological expertise relevant to our intended studies. Depending on the questions at hand this might mean finding collaborators with disciplinary backgrounds in various of the social and physical sciences and in the humanities, and if necessary with experience in the practical conduct of clinical trials, qualitative investigation and so on. Crucially, and arguably most importantly, it also means forging meaningful collaborations with people with experience of using services, whose priorities are the ones which really matter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s