This article grew out of our experience of facilitating the pre-conference workshop at the 18th Annual BACP Research Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012. The workshop, ‘Practice research networks: promises, pitfalls and potential’,1 generated lively debate not just about the practicalities of setting up and maintaining practice research networks (PRNs) but about their role and purpose as well. We thought it would be worth sharing a flavour of the discussion here.

The aim of the workshop was to engage participants in reflection and discussion about the value of PRNs as a vehicle for facilitating practitioner engagement in research, and their potential to contribute to building an evidence base for the effectiveness of counselling and psychotherapy. We structured the workshop around two brief presentations that outlined our own involvement in two PRNs (see ‘Two UK networks’ below), which we used as case studies to prompt discussion.

Over 50 researchers, academics and practitioners attended the workshop, from the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

What is a PRN?

PRNs originated as a basic system for recording morbidity rates in primary medical care settings, and are now established in mental health and psychological therapy services in the UK and elsewhere.2, 3 Essentially, a PRN provides an infrastructure for practitioners and researchers to work together to conduct research that is practice-based and relevant to everyday practice.4 Examples of PRNs in psychological therapies include the Pennsylvania Practice Research Network,5 the Human Givens Research Network, the Supervision Practice Research Network (SuPReNet), and Schools-based Counselling Practice Research Network (SCoPReNet) – information about the latter two PRNs can be found on the BACP website.

There appears to be a growing interest in PRNs currently because this research model holds the promise that it may narrow the so-called research–practice gap,6, 7 facilitate practitioner engagement in research and cultivate a more vibrant research culture in the counselling profession. However, while the PRN paradigm may offer the promise of such things, there are also significant challenges, all of which featured in the themes that arose during the workshop discussions, as the remainder of this article will report.

Engaging practitioners in research

One of the first issues that emerged in our discussions was the challenge of engaging practitioners in research. A potential pitfall associated with PRNs is that they may struggle to engage a broad spectrum of practitioners and end up being ‘enthusiasts’ clubs’ for a small group of therapists and academic researchers. In fact, many practitioners regard research as time-consuming, complicated or even boring.9 One workshop participant commented that lack of funding and increased demands on voluntary sector counselling agencies, for example, meant that survival was the order of the day, leaving little if any time to focus on research. Clearly, there are obstacles to be overcome to engage practitioners in research. So the question of what would motivate practitioners to take part in research is important and must be addressed for a PRN to be effective.

There was consensus amongst workshop participants that it was essential to convey the importance of research to practitioners and to work at creating a stronger research culture within the profession. More specifically, if practitioners are to be enthused to ‘buy into’ taking part in research within a PRN, they need to have a sense of ownership of the research strategy, and the research questions themselves must be derived from, and meaningful to, their everyday practice. This ‘bottom-up’ approach may tap into practitioners’ intrinsic motivation and curiosity about how to improve their practice. The imposition on practitioners of a less collaborative, ‘top-down’ approach to research or service evaluation is unlikely to harness their enthusiasm and commitment.

It was also noted that incentives may be needed to engage practitioners in a PRN project. One popular suggestion that emerged from our discussions was to offer CPD training events on topics related to research and issues that are pertinent to their practice. As we don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the factors that facilitate or obstruct participation in PRNs in different practice contexts, this is an area that could be researched further.

Where should we focus our research?

While workshop participants acknowledged the importance of promoting practitioner research within the profession, there was some debate about where the focus of our research activities should be. Participants questioned the value of practitioner research per se (which can be seen as fragmentary and idiosyncratic) and the extent to which counselling research should be about fulfilling the demands of the evidence-based agenda and influencing policy.

A concern was expressed that practitioner research within the context of a PRN may not really contribute to addressing important strategic questions for the profession (eg questions of efficacy/effectiveness). Another concern was that practitioner-researchers may lack the methodological expertise and resources to conduct more sophisticated studies. There are, clearly, important methodological and strategic issues that need to be addressed within a PRN. On the one hand, there was a strong argument for facilitating practitioner research, and on the other a recognition of the need to conduct research that is more methodologically sophisticated, in order to establish, among other things, an externally credible evidence base for counselling.

In relation to these issues, workshop participants raised several questions. ‘How can practitioners/counselling agencies turn routine audit and monitoring data into something more useful?’ Is it possible to conduct more sophisticated, rigorous research (eg random controlled trials) within a PRN? ‘Which should come first? Practitioners coming together and deciding the methodology, or do we design the methodology first, then recruit practitioners (ie practice-research network versus research-practice network)?’ We didn’t come to any firm conclusions during our discussions, but these and other questions deserve more detailed consideration and debate.

This debate may be particularly important given the current concerns that, unless the profession engages with the evidence-based paradigm, there is a very real danger that some counselling approaches may be side-lined in favour of therapies with a much stronger research evidence base for their effectiveness.10, 11 We are sympathetic to this view but, as many of our workshop participants reminded us, it is important not to lose sight of the value of conducting research that makes a more general contribution to knowledge and understanding of our profession.

Disseminating research findings

We had an interesting discussion about disseminating research findings. One workshop participant described their experience of disseminating research related to their agency through targeted public awareness campaigns that emphasised the human ‘story’ of their clients’ engagement in counselling. The advantage of this kind of reporting is that it makes a clear link between counselling research and people’s experience of counselling and its social impact.

A number of important points emerged about how we communicate these kinds of research stories to our different audiences. When communicating with members of the public, funding bodies and policy makers, it was considered essential to:

a) use a range of targeted media formats to raise awareness of the problem or particular issues affecting a client group (or groups)
b) highlight the extent and pervasiveness of the problem and its negative psychosocial effects, and
c) make a case for the benefits of counselling in alleviating the problem.

In short, the message is, ‘There is a real problem here; it’s worse than you think; counselling can help.’

This use of research stories is something that Joe and the Advisory Group for the SVSC PRN hope to use to engage voluntary sector counsellors in Scotland in research and disseminating findings from their network’s research activities. One idea they are currently working on is to disseminate research stories through the PRN website and its quarterly newsletter. For example, they are encouraging network members to submit brief ‘research biographies’ in which they describe their own experiences of being a researcher or conducting a specific study. They are also planning to disseminate findings from their research through the same media in a way that is more accessible to practitioners with little or no research experience. The hope is that this will stimulate counsellors’ interest in research and show, through the stories of other researchers, that participating in research can be a rewarding and empowering experience.

There is clearly a need to ensure that counselling research is published in professional and research journals. However, no less important is the dissemination of findings in appropriate forms to front-line practitioners who may not always use research to inform their practice, and to a range of different audiences, such as the general public and policy makers.

Other issues

Other issues that emerged during the workshop included the importance of leadership and effective organisational structures within a PRN to facilitate collaboration and communication among members. We also discussed how we engage clients in research and agreed that data collection methods should be practice-friendly and should not unduly burden clients.

Further important issues were the productivity and potential impact of any given PRN on practice and policy. For instance, Amanda and Mhairi’s work with VINCE suggests that, despite its strong membership, funding and expertise in counselling for sight loss, it continues to struggle to make an impact in the sight loss clinical world. In part, this may be because funding for research into the effectiveness of emotional support services tends to go to sight loss clinicians rather than counselling researchers. It seems that counselling has not yet gained credibility in this sector. Their experience with VINCE raises important questions about the structures and models that would maximise a PRN’s potential to have an impact on policy and practice.

Conclusion

Essentially, the PRN model can be seen as an important way to embed research in practice and develop a practitioner-led and client-led research agenda for the counselling profession. PRNs have the potential to bridge the so-called research–practice gap by linking research to practice and vice versa. But, as we have noted in this article, there are challenges: in engaging practitioners and clients in research, in developing a coherent research strategy, in disseminating research findings effectively and also, more practically, in the funding, organisation and co-ordination of a PRN’s activities. Notwithstanding these issues, the PRN model represents perhaps the most viable model for developing research capacity among counselling practitioners, in collaboration with academic researchers. Counselling practitioners are in the best position to engage counselling clients in research, to report their experiences of therapy and the outcomes they achieve and, in turn, to generate knowledge and improve awareness of our profession.

Dr Joe Armstrong is a lecturer in the Division of Nursing and Counselling, University of Abertay Dundee. He is co-founder and Chair of the Scottish Voluntary Sector Counselling Practice Research Network.

Amanda Hawkins is Senior Manager, Emotional Support at the RNIB and Chair of BACP.

Mhairi Thurston is a lecturer in counselling at the University of Abertay Dundee and Chair of the Vision Impairment Network for Counselling and Emotional Support.

References

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