What is the research scan? 

Every month, hundreds of studies are published about ways to improve the quality of healthcare. It’s important to keep up to date but it can be time consuming to find and read the latest research. The Research Scan is here to help. 

We scan all the studies about improving quality in healthcare and highlight research that might be most helpful and interesting for the people working to improve healthcare services. You can sign up for a monthly research scan alert and we’ll email you highlights at the end of each month. 

The research scan focuses on empirical studies that have the potential to support people in making a practical difference. For updates on policy documents, opinion articles, or unpublished literature, the Department of Health’s weekly email bulletin and NHS England's news bulletins may be of interest. 

We consider the research scan as an improvement programme in itself, and are continuously looking to improve how it is presented and our selection criteria. We welcome any feedback, suggestions or comments on the scan; please contact Research.mailbox@health.org.uk.

How do we select research? 

During each month the scanning team review a long list of research studies and assesses them for their relative novelty, methodological quality and relevance. Studies are considered relevant if they tell us about a practical way that the quality of healthcare in the UK could be improved.

a) Search 40,000 UK and international journals

We screen over 40,000 UK and international journals each month to find studies that we hope are relevant  to frontline teams and healthcare managers improve healthcare. We use bibliographic databases like Medline, the Cochrane Library, Google Scholar and Science Direct. We also search the websites of organisations working to improve healthcare quality, including the Department of Health, the Nuffield Trust, NHS Improving Quality and the King’s Fund. 

b) Extract research on four broad categories

We extract research studies from four broad categories (the search terms for the scan are monitored and revised over time to improve the quality and relevance of the scans picked up): 

  • Person-centered care: focuses on changing the relationship with professionals and healthcare systems to provide improved person-centred care. The search terms will include patient communication, patient involvement, patient empowerment, patient activation, self-management, self-care, self-efficacy, telemedicine, telecare, peer support, motivational interviewing, shared decision making, decision aids, patient held records patient engagement, health literacy, patient choice, patient preferences, partnership, person-centred. 
  • Patient safety: demonstrating and delivering systems to actively manage safety. Search terms will include patient safety, safety culture, safety climate, care bundles, hygiene, infection control, situational awareness, risk, harm, error and adverse events. 
  • Value for money: studies about reducing the time or cost spent on healthcare activities, ways to reduce unplanned admissions and strategies for organising or paying for organisations, teams and healthcare systems. Studies about the cost effectiveness of various processes and procedures will not be routinely included. Studies about methods for assessing cost effectiveness will be included in the ‘approaches to improvement’ category. Search terms will include productivity, return on investment, cost-benefit, savings, value, economic evaluation, regulation, high performing organisations, high reliability organisations and healthcare competition.
  • Approaches to improvement: evidence about creating and spreading knowledge for improvement, including methods, measures, innovative approaches to improvement and ways to share or disseminate information about improving quality. Search terms will include improvement science, implementation science, improvement methods, improvement research, research methods, survey method, quality assessment, quality assurance, dissemination, quality improvement, quality of care, organisational development, organisational culture, organisational climate, organisational change, clinical engagement, professional training. 

c) Apply 3 criteria - novel, practically relevant and methodogical quality

Because so much research is published each month on the categories outlined above, the scanning team make a judgement about the studies that might be most useful and relevant to you using the following criteria: 

  • Relevance– does the study tell us about a practical way that the quality of healthcare in the UK could be improved?  We include research that could support people in their decision making.
  • Novelty – does the study provide some new information or say something unique or unexpected? Studies which explore new topic areas, new ways of doing things or issues that have not received widespread attention are prioritised. Studies that reinforce a large body of existing knowledge are less of a priority, unless they are systematic reviews.
  • Methodological rigour – no matter which research design is used, has the study been conducted well and are the methods used broadly appropriate for the topic explored? Studies will not be prioritised or ranked on a hierarchy of evidence, with observational designs just as likely to be included if this is appropriate for the topic being investigated. 

d) Publish 1 monthly research scan

The final list of approximately 60-80 studies are then reviewed again and a summary is prepared highlighting some of the most interesting studies in each area. Usually we pick three studies in each category to highlight each month and include links to the others.

What types of research are included? 

Studies of different methodological designs are included, grouped as follows:

  • Systematic reviews draw together the findings of different studies using structured methods, and describe how studies were found. 
  • Literature reviews draw on a range of different studies but don’t always use structured methods or describe the methods used in detail.
  • Randomised controlled trials allocate people to different groups at the start of the study and then follow them up at the same time to see if there is a difference between groups. Because people are randomly allocated to each group, if there is a difference between the groups this should be due to whatever is being tested. 
  • Non randomised comparisons (quasi trials) compare two groups, but people are not randomly allocated to each group so it is less clear whether any difference between groups is a result of whatever is being tested or something else. 
  • Before and after studies look at what happens to a group of people over time. A measure is taken at the start of the study (before the intervention) and again later (after the intervention). 
  • Interviews ask people questions in person or by telephone. The questions and answers tend to be longer and more in depth than surveys. 
  • Surveys ask people a series of questions online, on paper or by telephone. The questions tend to be short and structured.
  • Observational studies (assorted methods) include focus groups, observing people’s behaviour or a mix of interviews, surveys, document analysis or other methods. 
  • Data analyses or document analyses involves drawing information from existing documents or databases or analysing datasets that have been collected for another purpose. 
  • Case studies use various methods to look at one organisation or group in detail to outline a narrative of what can be learnt from the specific example. 
  • Case control studies look back over time and compare one group (the cases or group that something happened to or who have a certain condition) to another group. 
  • Cost analyses can include a variety of methods for analysing the costs and savings of an intervention.