Community engagement step by step

Working together to improve health

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Community-minded researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are applying a framework to their work in an effort to ensure that it translates to real-world treatments that can improve the health of individuals and communities.
The community-engaged research (CEnR) framework describes a continuum of possibilities for research conducted with community partner participation, from more intensive collaborations (community-based participatory research or CBPR) to less collaboration (community-engaged research). The following provides an example of the continuum of study frameworks through the research steps.

Step 1
Research objective: Identifying the problem
In traditional research, the research objective is based on epidemiologic data and funding priorities. With community-engaged research, community input helps to identify locally relevant issues. Using CBPR, community partners fully participate in identifying issues of greatest importance to their community.

Step 2
Study design: Research plan developed, community selected and funds secured
With traditional research, this is handled entirely by the researchers: They draft the proposal, develop the research design and secure the funds, usually through a local, foundation or federal grant. However, in community-engaged research, researchers work with members of the community to ensure the study design is culturally acceptable. With CBPR, community partners are intimately involved with the study design and contribute to the proposal draft and suggest research questions.

Step 3
Recruitment and retention: Begin study in community
Recruitment through traditional research methods was based on scientific issues and educated guesses on how to best reach community members. Through community-engaged research, researchers consult with community representatives on recruitment and retention strategies.
CBPR practice is to involve community members as project staff in the office, in the field or as advisers whenever possible. By providing guidance on strategies, community members can help with recruitment and retention of study participants and secure community support.

Step 4
Instrument design: Develop and implement intervention or data collection
Traditional research involves data instruments that are adopted or adapted from other studies and tested with analytic methods. In community engaged research projects, instruments are still adopted from other studies, but they are tested and adapted to fit the local population. With CBPR, the instruments are developed with community input and tested in similar populations.

Step 5
Data collection
Collecting data using the traditional research framework is conducted by researchers or individuals with no connection to the community. With community-engaged research, community members are involved in some aspects of data collection. In CBPR, the data is collected by community members to the extent possible based on available skill sets. Community members can be hired to administer questionnaires, log participation, read measurement devices or make observations.

Step 6
Analysis and interpretation
In traditional research, it is the academic researchers who own the data, conduct analysis and interpret the findings. For community-engaged research, the academic researchers share results of analysis with the community members for discussion, comments and interpretation. Under the CBPR framework, data is shared and the community members and researchers work together to interpret the results.

Step 7
Dissemination: Report and disseminate results
Traditionally, researchers report study results by publishing papers in academic journals. With a community-engaged approach, dissemination of results to the community may take different forms, but the results are disseminated in community venues as well as peer-reviewed journals. Community organizations and leaders are often more interested in how many people participated and benefited than in the academic study results. With CBPR, community members assist academic researchers to identify appropriate venues to disseminate results (public meetings, media) in a timely manner. The community members are also involved in dissemination and actively participate in public meetings and press conferences.

Barriers to community-engaged research
There can be numerous barriers to community-engaged research, both on the community and academic sides.

A common community barrier is a history of leaving community concerns and interests out of the research agenda, leading to caution on the part of communities. In the past, researchers might have selected research topics without determining if they addressed perceived needs of the community. Studies were conducted “on” communities with the only community involvement being as research subjects.

On the academic side, barriers can include time. It takes time to build partnerships within a community. There’s planning, negotiating and communicating needs that are all time consuming activities over and above regular research and teaching responsibilities.

Another barrier is the expectations for dissemination of results. Community members often expect to hear about results very soon after the research is completed. Waiting for results to appear in an academic journal – a process that can take years – can be disappointing. Researchers need to discuss when and how the findings will be released, including what conclusions can be shared with communities and the media without compromising the researcher’s ability to present findings in academic venues.

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