What is rapid research and why is it relevant for health care?

Changing climates and priorities in health care require fast, actionable findings. Dr Cecilia Vindrola-Padros explores what rapid research is, and why these shorter study timeframes are increasingly relevant.

Blog post

Published: 13/03/2019

Rapid research seeks to compress study timeframes to deliver findings in shorter periods of time. As my colleagues Jean Ledger and Chris Sherlaw-Johnson described recently, the quick turnaround of findings makes rapid research appealing to the health care sector, where changing organisational climates and priorities require actionable findings at specific points in time.

The field of rapid research is old and vast, and comprises different approaches – some of which are closely related. Rapid appraisals, ethnographic assessments and assessment procedures are the oldest and probably more known approaches, but there has been an emergence of new forms of rapid research through focused or short-term ethnographies.

Evaluation methods have also been developed in terms of real-time evaluations, rapid feedback evaluations and rapid-cycle evaluations. The development of these approaches has been influenced by the wish to generate and disseminate findings quickly to inform improvements in health care.

What can it involve?

Rapid research often involves short-study timeframes, participatory approaches, team-based research and iterative data collection and analysis. There are different ways that rapid research is currently used. For instance, a rapid study can inform a longer one, can be carried out in parallel (informing each other through regular feedback loops), can be used after a longer study to expand certain aspects or seek clarification, or carried out on its own.

Despite advances, there are challenges in how these approaches are applied. These include cross-fertilisation between some approaches (making it difficult to distinguish between them) and a lack of consensus on terminology. For instance, there are multiple definitions of “rapid”, from one to four weeks, to four to six weeks, to 12 weeks, to five days to six months.

There are also methodological challenges, such as ensuring consistency in data collection and analysis across team members, biases in sampling, balancing the breadth and depth of data, allowing time for critical reflection, and time pressures for data access. Some researchers have also highlighted the low quality of reporting in rapid research and a lack of design and reporting guidelines. Disseminating findings is not always given the attention it requires, meaning that while they might be available when they are needed, they are not communicated in a way that informs decision-making. 

Why is it relevant for health care?

Many health care organisations use research to make decisions around management and organising care. This evidence might come in different forms, but one of the conditions for its use is that it will need to be available at a time when it can still inform decision-making processes. The changing climate and priorities of many health care organisations means that many important decisions are made quickly. As a consequence, any research hoping to inform these decisions must be flexible enough to deliver findings within reduced timeframes or on an ongoing basis, in the form of emerging findings. 

What work have we carried out on this topic?

The Rapid Service Evaluation Team (RSET) – which is made up of health service researchers, health economists and other colleagues from University College London and the Nuffield Trust – have come together to rapidly evaluate new ways of providing and organising care. Members from the team have also participated in a series of reviews exploring the use of rapid research in various health care settings.

Johnson and Vindrola-Padros explored the use of rapid qualitative research in complex health emergencies. They highlighted the contributions of these approaches in understanding context-specific issues that need to be addressed locally, population-level behaviours that influence health service use, and organisational challenges in response planning and implementation.

Vindrola-Padros and Vindrola-Padros carried out a review on the use of rapid ethnographies in health care quality improvement, pointing to an increased use of rapid ethnographies in health care and issues with their implementation. They also proposed steps forward to address methodological limitations and problems with terminology.

What are we working on now?

We are currently reviewing tools and techniques used in rapid qualitative research to shorten the amount of time required for data collection and analysis. This includes the use of rapid transcription techniques, software and team-based methods.

We are also exploring the design and implementation of rapid evaluations in health care contexts. RSET will be carrying out a combination of rapid studies and longer-term studies, and will experiment with new processes for sharing findings in a timely manner. 

*Dr Cecilia Vindrola-Padros is a Research Associate at University College London and is also a member of RSET. Read more about the RSET project here. 

This project is funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research Programme (project number 16/138/17). The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Health Services and Delivery Research Programme, NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.

Suggested citation

Vindrola-Padros C (2019) "What is rapid research and why is it relevant for health care?" Nuffield Trust comment. https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/news-item/what-is-rapid-research-and-why-is-it-relevant-for-health-care