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My research journey (so far!)

27th January 2023

We are delighted to share this Voices blog from PhD Student Bethany Gill, about how she has found her way into health visiting research and her journey to date…

I was invited to write this blog to share how I have found my way into health visiting research. Sharing a glimpse into my research journey has come at an exciting time, with the recent announcement of the iHV Research Network Meeting 2023 dates.

I started my PhD at the University of Central Lancashire in June 2021, having received funding from the National Institute of Health Research Applied Research Collaboration North West Coast (NIHR ARC NWC). I have a background in psychology, and I have worked as a health service researcher for five years which is how I came to find out about ARC NWC. My main research interest is the ‘people part’ of digital and technology, particularly in health and care services. This is a great fit with ARC NWC as they have several relevant research priorities and networks, including implementation, digital and the theme where my PhD sits, Health and Care Across the Life Course (HACAL). By undertaking this PhD within the ARC infrastructure, I have the opportunity to be supported by supervisors (Professor Soo Downe, Dr Victoria Appleton and Dr Rebecca Geary) as well as an Advisory Board, including two Public Advisors who are experts by experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of change in how health and care are delivered, with the increased use of telephone/virtual/digital being either incorporated or scaled up in services, including health visiting. I knew I wanted to use my PhD time to explore people’s experience of telehealth and digital technologies during COVID-19, and whilst there was an original project outline, I wasn’t sure exactly where to focus my research.

In talking through the challenge of ‘research focus’ with a family member, who is a health visitor, she suggested that I explore the topic of technology in health visiting. She explained that health visiting had used digital technology to work with families during COVID-19, a necessary strategy for that time, but one which is unexplored by research and that therefore lacks evidence for best practice. At that point, I did not really know what health visiting was, being neither a healthcare professional nor a parent, it wasn’t something I was really aware of.

I began exploring health visiting and very quickly found myself captivated by it, finding myself personally and professionally fascinated. From its origins in the 1800s and response to the needs of families alongside the industrial revolution, to providing support to families during the COVID-19 pandemic, health visiting is a universal public health initiative that has responded and adapted throughout the years to provide care to families. Learning more about the importance of the first 1001 days of life and the critical impact this has in the short and the long term, along with processes of transition to parenthood, expanded my understanding of the need for universal health visiting services. This in combination with my curiosity about the use of digital and virtual communications during COVID-19, is what has led me to focus my research on digital health in health visiting.

Writing and developing skills in explaining topics of concern is an important part of completing a PhD. For myself, my studies have provided the opportunity to write and publish with other colleagues, and develop an editorial published in the British Journal of General Practice as a call action for greater support, recognition and research for health visiting. This paper was developed from a collaboration with Dr Thomas Hampton, as we both had a shared interest in exploring the impact of digital services on families. As I researched the background and current situation of health visiting, I realised the enormous risks to population health (and future generations when the population concerns young families) when a universal service that underpins so many functions on which a health service relies, such as early identification, support and information provision is under threat on a national level due to a lack of recognition and support. It was a fantastic opportunity to work with fellow academics to publish on an important topic, which also allowed me to further refine my own plans for my PhD.

I am now halfway through my PhD and I am looking forward to the next phase of my research. In providing the above summary of my learning so far, I have spent a lot of time refining and thinking about exactly what I want to do, which has allowed me to plan what I want to achieve within the next couple of years. I have also been lucky enough to work with two Public Advisors and an Advisory board, whose insights have helped shape my thinking and challenge me. It is so important to work with people who have experience with your topic, as it provides new perspectives and grounds you as to why you are doing the research. This has been particularly important for me as I have not come from a health-visiting background. I feel there has been a positive to this though, I have come into this field with a curious and perhaps naïve mind and it has allowed me to ask questions from a different perspective. It has also allowed for an exchange of knowledge and skills between myself and those with experience working in, or receiving support from, health visiting services.

Currently, I am finishing off the systematic review that provides an important background to my study and following this I will move to the exciting data collection phase to discover more about the experiences of health visitors and families who used digital services during COVID-19. I hope to keep sharing updates through the Voices Blog, so keep an eye out!

Finally, I would encourage anyone who has an interest in research, or who would like to find out more about research, to sign up for the iHV Research Network events and look at other opportunities to get involved with research. Whether you have come from a health visiting/clinical/public health background, or like me have found a way by a different route, there are so many opportunities to get involved in health visiting research.

Thank you for reading my first Voices Blog!

Twitter: @bethany_gill1

This research is supported by the National Institute for Health Research Applied Research Collaboration North West Coast (ARC NWC). The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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