Engagement - News and Updates

Somerset Research Engagement Network (REN) project

Somerset Research Engagement Network (REN)

Following a successful bid in securing funding from NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care in October 2023, the delivery of a Research Engagement Network (REN) Project in Somerset is in progress. We are currently working with our partners across Somerset to deliver the project, with the final report due by the end of April 2024.

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The aim of the REN project is also to work in partnership with the voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise (VCFSE) organisations, to engage under-represented groups and communities, such as under-served groups with protected characteristic as well as inclusion health groups, to improve participation in NHS research.

The REN project aligns with both national and regional approaches to the community, for example as identified in the Core20+5 strategy, aiming to reduce health inequalities and in Somerset’s Integrated Care System (ICS) Strategy and Joint Forward Plan. There have also been opportunities to align the project with a number of NIHR (National Institute for Health Research) initiatives, Local Clinical Research Networks and Research Ready Communities programmes both in Somerset and the South West.


What we hope to achieve

In the Somerset proposal, we were inspired by an article produce by NHS England, ‘Increasing Diversity in Research Participation: a good practice guide for engaging with underrepresented groups’.

In Somerset, we are particularly interested in discussions around mistrust and how this may play a role in an individuals’ choice of whether to get involved in health and care research.

We want to understand levels of trust or mistrust and any correlation to health inequalities - this question will help clarify the extent of work the ICS must deliver to build mutually trusting relationships with people and communities in Somerset.

Project updates

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March - April 2024

The Somerset Research Engagement (REN) Project submitted its final report to NHS England at the end of April, following just over a month’s engagement with diverse people & communities, through VFSE, local community trusted ‘Research Connectors’.

The Somerset REN Research Connectors had individual and group conversations with people in their community groups around key research-based questions, such as people’s knowledge and understanding of research, awareness of research participation opportunities, any previous experiences of taking part in health & care research and importantly, discussing the barriers and enablers to research participation.

The feedback gathered from the community conversations was analysed by an external organisation, Darmax Research, and key themes clearly emerged around barriers to participation such as language, accessibility and trust. These key themes will be included in a final report that we hope to publish online shortly and make available to all. In the report, we will also establish recommendations for researchers trying to ensure diverse participation in health and care research projects, as well as useful recommendations for engagement colleagues and all ICS colleagues who need to ensure that they engage with diverse people & communities across Somerset.

We would like to thank the following community groups and organisations for agreeing to take part in the Somerset REN project and providing us with invaluable feedback, helping us to improve the diversity of research participation:

  • Dulverton Talking Café
  • Williton Talking Café
  • Minehead Talking Café
  • Alzheimer's Society - Dementia Voice
  • Nelson Trust
  • Homestart
  • Minehead Eye
  • Watchet Dementia Alliance
  • MIND (Bridgewater Group)
  • Seed of Hope (West Somerset Group)

As next steps, the Somerset Research Engagement Network comprised on ICS partners, aims to continue to meet to plan further research-based activities that will enhance peoples’ knowledge and awareness of health & care research in Somerset as well as the national initiative, ‘Be Part of Research’. The Somerset REN Network will also find ways to ensure that research conversations are embedded in the ICS as ‘business as usual’ and that the recommendations from this project are disseminated, discussed and used to inform the planning and work of our ICS colleagues.

January - February 2024

In January, the Somerset REN Project Oversight Group planned the engagement phase of the project and the community groups are going to begin the engagement activity in the next few weeks.

Spark Somerset have been working closely with our community group leaders, the ‘Research Connectors’ formerly known as ‘Research Champions’. The Project Oversight Group decided to change the name as ‘Research Champions’ are already established in Somerset research initiatives and we felt that our community experts were really providing a vital connection between the ICS partner organisations involved in this project and the individuals and groups in local communities.

Spark Somerset have been talking with our ‘Research Connectors’ and ensuring they have everything they need to speak with 10-15 members of their group or organisation about research participation. We are very grateful that community groups have agreed to work with us in urban, rural and coastal locations in Somerset and groups that support individuals with cancer, mental health and Dementia. These locations and health areas were chosen through our scoping work carried out before Christmas, which highlighted which individuals and groups are less likely to participate in research and which health issues would enable conversations around current research opportunities.

We have developed seven key questions to guide the conversations, such as ‘What do you think ‘health and care research’ is/involves?’ and ‘Have you ever taken part or supported any health & care research?’ . Importantly, we are also asking a question around why participants think that a wide, diverse range of people in Somerset do not take part in health & care research. Our ‘Research Connectors’ will best decide how to have these conversations with the members of their groups, for example as group conversations, small focus groups or interviews. The REN engagement questions will also be accessible online, as a survey, to allow members of the community groups’ to leave additional feedback beyond the conversations with the Research Connectors.

Next steps:

We are hoping that the engagement conversations will all be completed by the end of the first week in March, to allow us time to analyse the wealth of feedback we receive, before writing the final report and project evaluation for the NHS England REN Leadership Team.

Finally, the Somerset REN Project Oversight Group has begun discussions around the topic of sustainability, for example the future of the REN ICS network, of the use of all the learning from the REN work and how we will continue conversations about research beyond the end of the project, to keep addressing the barriers to research participation. We are also aware of other research-related projects and initiatives that will be developing in Somerset in 2024, which is very exciting as we hope to link in with these. As they say, watch this space!

November - December 2023

During November and December, the REN Project Oversight Group spent time mapping the engagement and research landscape of Somerset, ensuring that we had the right individuals in the group to share their experience and expertise of both research and engagement, and the group is now planning the engagement phase of the project.

The group has worked together to develop a focus, to enable Spark Somerset to reach out and contact relevant VCFSE organisations to work with us.

The focus will be on under-represented individuals, groups and communities, sometimes referred to as ‘underserved’ or the ‘seldom heard’ in Somerset’s coastal, rural and urban areas and research for cancer, mental health and dementia.

Once Spark Somerset have completed their work in identifying VCFSE organisations in these areas who will work with us, we will be developing the training for community-based ‘Research Champions’ with their vital local knowledge, understanding and connections.

The ‘Research Champions’ will be supported to discuss with individuals key areas such as their knowledge and understanding of what health and social care research is, their awareness of past research in these health and care areas, and the reasons why they would or would not get involved in current or future research opportunities. It is hoped that these discussions provide valuable, qualitative feedback around research participation, including key insight into the question of mistrust as a barrier to participation.

Next steps:

The REN Project Oversight Group has numerous workstreams planned or underway, including the development of a communications strategy for raising awareness of the project.

The NHS Somerset Citizens' Hub provided effective and useful feedback and engagement assurance in December and we will continue to take the REN Project to various groups for their feedback, to keep colleagues up-to-date on project developments and to constantly aim to improve our approach.

NHS England, the Department of Health & Social Care and the REN Project Oversight Group are aware that developing trust and effective bi-directional research relationships with communities takes time. This current project is the first step - to help put into place joint-working as a Somerset Research Engagement Network, so that colleagues across the ICS share learning and expertise, as well as to develop an evidence base for effective and sustainable ways of engaging with diverse communities around research, to feed into future engagement programme plans.