What is health and care research?

You already conduct research in your day-to-day life. This research informs and broadens your understanding of things before you make a decision. Health and care research is the same. It seeks to find answers to questions about the best options available.  It then uses these discoveries to make decisions about improvements or changes. This is so we can:

  • diagnose diseases earlier or more accurately
  • provide life-changing treatments
  • prevent people from developing conditions
  • improve health and care for generations to come
  • ensure everyone has a better quality of life

Although health professionals already know a great deal, there are still so many questions that need answers. Sometimes, the outcome of research just confirms that what we have at the moment, is the best available to us right now. 

How research contributes to our NHS

This short film explains the important role that research plays in the NHS and how important it is for the future that we all consider taking part (video transcript).

Good research is: 

  • Relevant – it answers questions that are important to the health and care of the public
  • High quality – it has to follow strict legal standards 
  • Safe – it puts people’s safety and dignity first

The first clinical trial

The first clinical trial was conducted by James Lind.  He was a Scottish doctor and a pioneer of naval hygiene in the Royal Navy.  He conducted the first clinical trial in history in 1747.

James wanted to investigate whether citrus fruits cured scurvy. He selected twelve patients with scurvy on a ship, kept them together and gave them all different diets and monitored them. By the end of the week, the sailors whose daily diet included citrus fruits recovered, therefore proving that citrus fruit could cure scurvy.

We still celebrate this milestone each year on International Clinical Trials Day.  

Myths about research

Understanding the facts is really important when deciding whether to take part in research. By clicking on the arrow next to each myth you can reveal the facts. 

All health and social care research has to go through very strict ethical and regulatory checks before it can go ahead. There are lots of different ways to get involved with research. Some involve taking a new medicine or having a new form of treatment, others may be as simple as filling out a questionnaire or leaving a sample. People are very closely monitored while they are taking part in research, so although health and care research is not entirely risk-free, the chances of something going wrong are small.

Not all health and care professionals will be fully informed about all of the research opportunities available to you. They might also not have the time to discuss it with you in your appointment.  However, it is important to ask about opportunities to get involved in research as your healthcare professional will know how to find out what might be available. You can search for studies on this website by using the search bar at the very top of each page by typing in your town, postcode, body part, medicine or health condition.  You can also find a condition by pressing the “view conditions” button. 

Health and care research can take place in many different places, from schools to care homes depending on the type of research. It is more common than ever before for research to take place in non-clinical settings. Digital technology provides a way of getting people involved from the comfort of their own homes.

Not all health and care research involves taking drugs. The research may involve testing a new device to help monitor or administer a medicine for an illness. It could be about monitoring how certain changes in our diet and lifestyle could help the health of our nation in the future. Research might simply involve talking to someone, completing a short questionnaire or even using an app on a mobile device.  There are also many different ways to be involved in research without being a participant in a research study.

Whatever the type of research, anyone who is involved should be treated with respect. The research is not being done to them but with them. People who participate in research often say that they feel well cared for as they have a dedicated contact within the research staff team. Research teams must follow ethical guidance and before the research can take place, they must seek approval for their plan from a Research Ethics Committee. Research that involves new medicines is not tested on people first. It will have gone through a process to ensure it is ready for use with people. 

Research aims to prevent diseases as well as cure them. There are a range of factors which can contribute to your health, for example: where you live, what you eat and whether you have a good support network of family and friends. Public health research seeks to answer questions about some of these factors.

Research seeks to find ways for people to live well with long-term conditions. It can help to find out the best ways to care for people living with life-limiting illness and pain, which is known as ’palliative care’. Research can lead to improvements in end-of-life care across all diseases and to help patients to live in comfort and die with dignity.

People’s health is not limited to physical disease, it includes their mental well being. Research therefore seeks to answer questions about mental health such as is medicine, counselling or a combination of both the best treatment for individuals living with depression? Members of the public can have a role in identifying and prioritising where health research is focused. Given increased awareness of the effects our mental health can have on our physical well being, this is likely to be a growing area of health and social care research. Read about all the research happening within the NIHR specialty for mental health.

Children can take part in health and care research with the permission of their legal guardian. The research team may meet with the child to make sure they understand what the research is about. They may use pictures to explain the study. Research in child health is vital to help find new and better ways to care for children. You can find studies for children by typing "Children" in the search box at the very top of this page.

Health research is funded by drug companies, charities and the government, although when the NHS undertakes research specifically for drug companies, the company pays the full cost.  Everyone benefits from the development of new medicines, and without commercial drug companies there would be less research taking place.

Different types of research

Healthcare research

Sometimes health research studies may be referred to as ‘clinical trials’.  They usually involve examining and observing people with different conditions and sometimes comparing them with people who don't have the condition. It can also involve research on samples of blood or other tissues, or tests such as scans or X-rays. Researchers can also analyse information in patient records, or the data from health and lifestyle surveys.

Public health research

Tackles some of the bigger health issues that affect society as a whole, for example, the impact of giving up smoking, how many steps a day for good health etc. It also looks at the benefits, costs, acceptability and the wider impact of treatments.

Social care research

Is about improving the lives of people who receive care and support from our social care sector. Research in social care could be about introducing new devices and technologies such as: lifting equipment to help with residents, exploring the impact of technology driven care environments or changing social care policies and practice. 

Important research discoveries

Launched in 1961, the contraceptive pill was initially only prescribed to married women, but the law was relaxed in 1967. The pill works by suppressing fertility with either progesterone or oestrogen or, more commonly, a combination of both. 

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 and developed into a drug in the early 1940s. Today it’s used to treat a broad range of bacterial infections accounting for around 45% of the antibiotics prescribed in the NHS in England.

Research in the 1980s and 1990s showed that low doses of blood-thinning drugs such as aspirin and warfarin significantly reduced the number of heart attacks and strokes in people at risk.

Before you go

Research is a team effort.  We need members of the public, like you, to take part. Without volunteers, it would not be possible for research to happen.

  1. Reasons why people take part in research
  2. How to take part in research
  3. Learn about how studies are made safe