This Sickle Cell Life, co-production & academic research

Recruitment information for This Sickle Cell Life participants (Photo: Anne Koerber)

Our latest blog by DEPTH researcher Dr Sam Miles takes a break from coronavirus research to explore the themes of co-production and collaboration in our recently completed project This Sickle Cell Life. Read on to find out more…

Regular readers of this blog will know that our work in DEPTH (Dialogue, Evidence, Participation & Translation for Health) includes thinking about how we involve different communities in health research. Today I’m writing about This Sickle Cell Life, a recently completed qualitative research project that talks to young people about their lives and experiences of having sickle cell disease. I should add that some of what I’m writing about is based on team discussions and reflections. We’re writing this up in more detail with our co-authors and I’ll keep you posted on how it progresses.

I got involved in This Sickle Cell Life with Professor Cicely Marston and Dr Alicia Renedo when I started here at LSHTM in 2017. Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the project explores how young people experience transitions in moving from paediatric to adult healthcare services. This includes for example how our participants experience GP surgeries, scheduled hospital visits or unscheduled (i.e. emergency) trips to A&E. We also explored the personal and day-to-day experiences of young people living with sickle cell disease. We were aiming to answer questions including: What is the relationship between a young person with sickle cell and their doctor, and how does this change if you move away from home for college, university or work? And why do young people with sickle cell sometimes delay going to the emergency department when they have a sickle cell pain crisis? (Read this excellent overview by Sickle Cell Society for more on pain). We then cast the net wider to think about family, school, sex and relationships.

Our aim was to offer a much-needed sociological picture of how a young person with sickle cell navigates their life and their future, to mirror the more extensive clinical and quantitative research that has been published about the condition. That’s not to say that sickle cell research is exactly a crowded market – Professor Simon Dyson, who has made brilliant sociological contributions over many years, has rightly noted the lack of sickle cell research compared to other chronic health conditions, and how social, economic and ethnic determinants play into this marginalisation:

‘…impairment is primarily socially created by environmental factors, consumption patterns and accidents and not by genetic disorders.’ (Dyson 1998: p.123).

sicklecells - Wikipedia commons

Sickled cells (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Co-production

Fieldwork was already expertly wrapped up by Alicia when I joined the project, but I got to be part of the really interesting results analysis, discussion and dissemination work, including an engagement event with the public which in turn led to some fantastic community projects of its own. You can read more about the work here, but what I’m going to focus on in this blog was the role of ‘co-production’ in the project: put simply, that means working with different ‘kinds’ of people to produce research that is a collaborative effort. Co-produced research recognises that expertise is held by a range of people rather than only the ‘usual suspects’ (in this scenario, academics or clinicians). Advocates of co-production hope that the research findings developed are more rounded-out and take into account the ‘embodied’ knowledge of people who are living the journey themselves (see Renedo et al., 2018 for more).

One of the distinctive features of This Sickle Cell Life was that it was co-produced with two young sickle cell patient experts and a sickle cell parent/carer expert from the outset. All three have extensive knowledge of sickle cell and life with sickle cell, and already advocate for healthcare improvement in their own lives. They were involved long before I was – right from the project planning and application stage before funding was granted, in fact. They were also paid for their time. Partnering with these three experts added a very important facet to the research we conducted. There is a lot of talk in public health research about ‘PPI’, or patient & public involvement with healthcare. In the NHS, the motto ‘nothing about me, without me’ represents one way in which patient involvement is rationalised. Funders and grant-giving bodies are (rightly) keen to see meaningful involvement with the communities (sometimes also called beneficiaries) who are most relevant to the research being done. Co-production can also shine a light on the power imbalances that often happen in a traditional researcher-participant relationship in social sciences research which can reinforce all sorts of unhelpful hierarchies and prejudices.

SickleCell-futures- emergency dept
Documenting the participatory dissemination event for This Sickle Cell Life (Photo: Anne Koerber)

In our project, we agreed with our patient experts that it was particularly important that their voices were heard, because they contributed expert knowledge of their bodies and their own health conditions, as well as helping us at the findings stage of the research, highlighting themes that were most pertinent to improving healthcare environments for people with sickle cell. We further argued at every stage (to colleagues, institutions, sceptics – anyone who would listen basically) that our involvement processes needed to be considered, balanced, and properly thought-through – lip-service involvement doesn’t help any party and it is not in the spirit of meaningful participation. We wanted to amplify less-heard voices and hear stories from our patient experts and carer experts because their analysis of their own, and others’, experiences of sickle were invaluable. Our collaborators’ input contributed a different side to more traditional qualitative research; as a team, we worked to interpret the data and draw out the implications for practice.

The highlight of the project for me was not just the valuable findings that came out of 80 interviews with young people, which are research outputs of their own brilliantly managed by Alicia (which you can read for free here), but the process of co-producing research with patient experts and carers. I have discussed the idea of co-production a bit in my own digital technology and sexuality research, in which I (loosely) explored the co-production by both researcher and participant of a safe discursive space for covering sensitive topics in sex and sexuality in fieldwork research (which you can read for free here). But This Sickle Cell Life made co-production central from the start and throughout the full four years of the project; it is clear to me only now how truly different this way of working is, and the value it adds.

Attendees at the participatory dissemination event for This Sickle Cell Life (Photo: Anne Koerber)

The winding road to publication: How expertise is framed in academia

What was interesting was how our co-produced research outputs were received by peer reviewers for academic journals. Having learnt so much from our patient experts about how their experiences reflected what our results showed us about participants’ experiences, we invited them to write an academic article with us. We did this by discussing study findings with them and inviting them to discuss these themes with us as I took notes and recordings to write into a larger discussion. It was a long process, involving lots of conversations in cafes, on the phone and by email to coordinate our different experiences and expertise.

However, upon submission several reviewers critiqued what they felt to be overly personal accounts of sickle cell. Even having noted our co-produced efforts and celebrated this ethos, reviewers still picked out patient expert passages that they felt were lacking objective research – questioning the expertise of our co-production partners who were best placed to be reflecting on the study findings. Where our patient experts told us how their experiences chimed with those of the participants when it came to hospital care or chronic ill health or family issues, and I wove these reflections into our discussion section, reviewers felt this expertise was anecdotal or somehow unscientific – as if the rest of the qualitative dataset was by contrast unobjectionable or markedly positivist, when of course it wasn’t. We were in the paradoxical position of amplifying the expert knowledge of people with sickle cell and yet that knowledge being somehow too ‘real-life’.

We were in the paradoxical position of amplifying the expert knowledge of people with sickle cell and yet that knowledge was somehow too ‘real-life’.

I have sympathy for the reviewers, too, because despite the best will of a whole range of actors to more actively incorporate a range of knowledges into academic publications, establishment traditions prevail. This clashes with what I guess I would call the out-of-place-ness of equitable authorship, which synthesises a range of voices, including those which are non-establishment and may contribute in different (often refreshingly different) ways than are standard. None of this is to say that it wasn’t a valuable experience, but it was a long one. Critical Public Health and its editors did support our approach, with suggestions back and forth, and published what we hope will be the first of several co-produced articles (read it for free here).

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That leads us to one of the curious tensions in this kind of work – our collaborators are clearly experts, but they’re not academics. Does that matter? Well, it shouldn’t – especially given the UK NHS drive to centre patients and public at the forefront of research and healthcare involvement. And yet the process of publishing papers with our patient experts was not straightforward. It required different ways of working than what we were all used to, and different approaches – and that’s before we consider the lengthy journey we then had publishing our co-produced academic article, where roadblocks re-emerged.

I came to see that the key contribution of any author is their contribution to ‘the work’, and this can go far beyond typing up results or making an argument for changing UK healthcare practices in an academic article. Instead, it is about having conversations – in ways that ensure equity between all parties – and then using academics’ toolkits to package this co-produced knowledge whilst maintaining its integrity. For us, a more liberatory outcome would have been yet more unconventional than the finished piece. Maybe this would have taken us further from what makes an academic article an academic article. Well, you might argue, if you really want to publish more collaboratively, perhaps a different format would be better suited – a commentary, or an editorial, or a blog – and we are in the process of doing all those things. But this argument overlooks the ostensible openness of academic publishing to co-produced and public involvement endeavours. We’re all supposed to be embracing that ethos…aren’t we? There is work to do, it seems, in lining up expectations with conventions in co-produced research outputs.

Workshopping involvement at This Sickle Cell Life participatory dissemination event (Photo: Anne Koerber)

Final thoughts

As for the research itself, it’s been a fantastically valuable project for better understanding the health and social conditions of sickle cell. There are definitely ways we can further improve on our approaches to co-production for next time. It’s also not to say that our co-production work was straightforward or easy. On the contrary, it required constant communication between all parties to stay on the same page. But that ongoing relationship, and that time taken to gather views from around the table really ought to be how we always operate: with care, consideration and dialogue between all parties at all times. We came to define it as ‘slow co-production’, which I’ve blogged about before (we lay out what we think are its strengths in this article). It is only within the tight parameters of contemporary academic research contracts that this valuable, lengthy process feels like a luxury. I should add that the NIHR were very supportive of our approach and helped us build into our budget money to support exactly this kind of process, and they also gave us a generous timeframe in which to generate all this co-produced work.

It also encourages us to question what constitutes ‘knowledge’, who or what entities ‘hold’ knowledge (and you see it performed nowhere more starkly than in healthcare settings), and of the power imbalance between researcher and participant. Now I think twice before internalising the status quo of privilege and position in knowledge-holding (and knowledge exchange). I think more about how practical experience informs knowledge – or is overlooked by systems of knowledge and knowing – and who actually gets a seat at the table in supposedly collaborative endeavours. Cicely and Alicia have written about all of this and more, and you can read this work here, here and here.

Pursuing co-production helps us recognise the importance of prioritising equitable social science research that values all voices equally and recognises a range of expertise, rather than relying on the (often colonial, socially-structured, privileged) expertise bestowed – and often still prioritised – by academia.

Some of the This Sickle Cell Life collaborators (Top row L-R: Patrick Ojeer, Ganesh Sathyamoorthy, Sam Miles, Nordia Willis, Alicia Renedo, Andrea Leigh. Bottom row L-R: Cicely Marston, John James, Siann Millanaise. Photo: Anne Koerber)

This Sickle Cell Life was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research Programme (project number 13/54/25). The views and opinions expressed therein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the HS&DR Programme, NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health.

Trip report: LSHTM Participatory research workshop at Kyoto University

In our latest blog post, DEPTH researcher Dr Alicia Renedo gives us an overview of her experience delivering a short course on participatory research at Kyoto University School of Public Health.

Kyoto streetscape. Photo: Alicia Renedo

The short course consisted of two full day workshops (day 1 Professor Pranee Liamputtong and day 2 Dr Alicia Renedo), which included a combination of mini-lectures, reflective discussions and participatory group work by students from Kyoto University. Research degree students from LSHTM also attended the course at Kyoto and presented some of their own participatory research projects

Professor Liamputtong from Western Sydney University delivered an engaging session on the theory and methods of PAR (participatory action research). PAR emphasises involvement of participants in the research undertaken and encourages participants to shape the research undertaken. The day started with an inspiring introduction into the philosophy behind PAR, which drew upon the pioneering ideas of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Students learned about the importance that Freire’s work has had on the theory and practice of participation for social change and health improvement. In particular, Professor Liamputtong challenged students to think about how Freire’s concepts of ‘radical love’ and ‘conscientization’ can contribute to more equitable research. This is a type of research that challenges the status quo by engaging ignored and silenced voices and addresses the problems marginalised communities identify as central to their everyday life.

Professor Liamputtong contextualised PAR within the wider debate about decolonising research methodologies. She drew on Linda Tuhiwai Smiths’ work to make an excellent case for the need to stop conducting research that takes away the knowledge and livelihoods of communities and suppresses their identities.

This introduction to the theory and philosophy of PAR was followed up by an overview of different creative PAR methodologies, from body-mapping to photovoice. We also learned about the personal skills PAR researchers need to develop; reciprocity, self-reflexivity, respect, self-awareness, humility, and compassion amongst others.

On the second day, Dr Renedo encouraged students to think critically about participation in health. She gave on overview of the body of work she’s developed with Professor Cicely Marston focused on understanding how community participation and patient involvement in healthcare research works in practice: what works, why and how? She started the day with an introduction to work they have developed on theorising participation and using participatory approaches in health research. Their work has addressed important evidence gaps on participation in health by developing critical theory on undertheorized aspects, which are also neglected in practice. In this first session, students learned about the importance of space in making participation successful and inclusive, and about the role of temporal, social and material aspects of participatory space in influencing participants’ ability to negotiate their rights for quality health and to mobilise for better health.

In this session, students also learned about how social relationships and research practices at the core of participatory research shape the identities of participants, that is how participants see their role and capacity to influence. Dr Renedo closed this first session with a discussion about the social production of new forms of knowledge through participatory processes; what happens when the technical knowledge of researchers and healthcare providers interacts with the knowledge brought by communities?

In the second session, Dr Renedo stimulated group discussion around the guiding principles for participatory research. She introduced students to guiding principles for ensuring participatory research is ethical and inclusive to deliver bottom-up solutions for the communities we are working with. Students were tasked with planning a participatory research project with vulnerable communities. Before they started, Dr Renedo warned students about some of the potential risks of participatory research, for example, community disengagement, mistrust and reinforcement of pre-existing inequalities and power hierarchies.

Kyoto University campus lunch. Photo: Alicia Renedo

In the afternoon, Dr Renedo presented a case example of DEPTH participatory research project co-produced with sickle cell disease (SCD) patient advocates (patients with SCD and carers of patients with SCD). Her session was followed up by presentationson PAR conducted by LSHTM research degree students: Asmae Doukani, Stefanie Fringes and Chris Obermeyer.

Asmae Doukani gave a talk about her participatory research journey and reflected on her personal learnings about meaningful user involvement in the development and evaluation of digital mental health interventions. Chris Obermeyer gave an overview of his grassroots participatory research involving communities in improving PrEP promotion in Ukraine. Stefanie Fringes helped students think critically about how to do participation with young people as research partners in the context of HIV in adolescent health.

Alicia would like to give a special thanks to Ayako Kohno and Teranee Techasrivichien, from Kyoto University School of Public Health, for inviting us to participate in the workshop. She adds:

“I was truly inspired by all presentations and by Kyoto University students’ critical insights into participatory research. The workshop stimulated truly collective learning. I look forward to continue conversations and see how the students can draw on the learnings from the two-day workshop in their own research.”

A recording of the two-day workshop will be available via Kyoto University’s website. We will add a link to these resources when they are ready.

Kyoto streetscape. Photo: Alicia Renedo

Sickle Cell, Sociology, Scotland: Report-back from the BSA Medical Sociology conference

What is the legacy of medical sociology? How has it shaped other disciplines and practices? And what is its role in challenging the status quo of inequalities in health?

These were some of the topics discussed by very talented people at this year’s MedSoc (Medical Sociology) Conference in Glasgow. These were also some of the issues that drove our aim to explore how transitions to adulthood for young people with sickle cell could be improved and how healthcare services could help support these. The conference provided a great opportunity to present our sickle cell research.

Our presentation focused on how health transitions shape the identities of young people and how this contributes to the ways in which young people develop into adult patients. Transitions to adulthood can often bring challenges, and for young people with sickle cell, the challenges often faced in education, social and emotional transitions to adulthood are complicated by their condition, and they must navigate these complex changes as well as changes in their hospital care that can bring problems as they move from child to adult health services.

There was a range of interesting presentations to choose from. Martyn Pickersgill’s fascinating talk about the dialectic between patient experience and diagnostic practice, resonated with some of our findings on the hybridisation of knowledge through the dialogue between ‘subjective’ patient experiences and ‘objective’ evidence. Charlotte Kühlbrandt’s ethnographic paper helped to shed light on the intricate relationship between citizenship/non-citizenship and patienthood/non-patienthood in the context of Roma Health Mediation in Romania. In this case, health mediation becomes correction in the production of normative forms of citizens and patients. In our case, we showed how healthcare transitions become self-disciplining ‘at a distance’ and form part of a relentless process of self-governance through which young people try to become the types of patient and citizens they ought to be.

Eva Krockow made us think about how we balance the individual versus collective good when we make choices about antibiotic prescribing.

 

The panel plenary, with a focus on inequalities, was fascinating. The keynote papers from Professor Ellen Annandale discussed the ‘gendering’ of health inequalities and the embodiment of global gender power relations such as the health consequences of biogenetic trade. Professor Hannah Bradby pointed out barriers faced by forced migrants across Europe, the stratification of migrant status and how this interacts with “acceptable” forms of vulnerability.  Some migrants find themselves having to amplify and enact their vulnerability (mental health) to access care and citizenship status. Professor Graham Scambler’s keynote paper on “What’s Left of Class for medical sociology?” encouraged discussion about our role as sociologist activists in challenging health inequalities.

With Scambler’s call to action, I left the conference eager to continue my commitment to medical sociology and critical engagement with inequalities in health. You can keep up to date with our work in these areas via our website, DEPTH twitter account and our This Sickle Cell Life project twitter account.

Presenting at the forthcoming BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference

Last week, we headed to Glasgow for the BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference to share a sneak preview of our findings from This Sickle Cell Life: voices and experiences of young people with sickle cell.

Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder disproportionately found in minority ethnic communities in Britain. It is a chronic debilitating condition that both causes cumulative damage to multiple organ systems, and causes acute pain.

This Sickle Cell Life is part of the work of DEPTH research group at LSHTM. The project explores how people move from using child to adult healthcare services and asks young people about their experiences of living with sickle cell. Transitioning to adulthood is obviously not just something that affects clinical experiences and so we also explore education and relationships, and ask young people what is important to them.

At the BSA MedSoc conference we talked about how healthcare transitions shape the identity of young people, and how these transitions help ‘make’ particular kinds of patients.

Why focus on identity? Health transitions need new health knowledge and new behaviours to develop, but they also need development of self-perceptions and understandings of how a person should behave as an adult (rather than a child) patient. In this way, identities play an important role in shaping health practices and beliefs. Understanding identity development during transitions can help explain why some young people transition smoothly or less smoothly into healthy adulthood.

In our presentation, we talked about how ideas and discourses about self-management and healthy lifestyle within healthcare today act as a way to discipline young people “at a distance”, to quote Miller & Rose (1990) and influence their behaviour. These healthcare self-management discourses intersect with demands from schools that are often not compatible. For instance, schools demand that young people excel and become entrepreneurial, competent individuals, but excelling at school is far more difficult for young people who have to spend time in hospital, or who have to rest regularly to avoid having a pain crisis. These intersecting demands can translate into conflicting “self-disciplining” identities.

For young people with sickle cell, we found that transitions to adulthood involve relentless self-disciplining and self-surveillance to try to be as healthy as possible, while also aspiring to work hard so that they can develop and meet educational and career goals.

You can check back on our updates from the BSA conference on the Sickle Cell LifeTwitter account, here.

A whistle-stop tour of the DEPTH research group at LSHTM

Now that you’ve been introduced to our new blog, we thought it would make sense to give you a whistle-stop tour of our DEPTH research group here at LSHTM.

We are a group of scholars in the Department of Public Health, Environments and Society at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who take an interdisciplinary approach to health. We are one of LSHTM’s newest hubs, developed earlier this year as a way to bring together some of our shared work. We use the acronym DEPTH to unify our themes of Dialogue, Evidence, Participation and Translation for Health. We conduct research into different types of dialogue and different people’s participation in health with the aim of increasing equity and improving health worldwide, and amplifying less-heard voices.

Our new website has allowed us to introduce a wider audience to our public health work – you can check it out here. We see it as a space for communication and conversation – not just with academic colleagues, but also in policy debates, in education systems and with the wider public. We also think it is important to show our work to a wide range of audiences, not just specialists, and so we have listed all of our individual or combined efforts on this page, including summaries of each research paper listed in plain English, with concepts summarised and acronyms explained. You can read about the six Research themes that underpin DEPTH here. These research themes include our work on patient and public involvement, dialogues about sexual and reproductive health and young people’s experiences of Sickle Cell, and our work with Imperial College London on the ethics of electronic health records.

As for this blog, it functions as a conversation space. It provides a way for us to write about important studies in the field of community involvement, participation and public health. We will talk about our own research, but will also write about current affairs as well as research from elsewhere, when we would like to contribute to debate. We agree that one of the most important things we can do as academics is move beyond our own research specialisms to listen to – and amplify – the perspectives of those who may be less heard. We hope you will find these perspectives as valuable as we do – and key to this is conversation.

Finally, we want to hear from you too! Our blog now has comment space, and we’re very keen to hear your views, thoughts and ideas. You can get also get involved via our Twitter account, and you can contact us with questions, feedback or even your own blog pitch. Finally, look out for upcoming events on this blog page, where we will post details of future talks, meetings and events, as well as commentaries on new publications and policy.

Thanks again for reading and we look forward to sharing more about our work at DEPTH.

Sam, Research Fellow, DEPTH.