Combining PPI with qualitative research to engage 'harder-to-reach' populations: service user groups as co-applicants on a platform study for a trial

Res Involv Engagem. 2016 Mar 24;2:7. doi: 10.1186/s40900-016-0023-1. eCollection 2016.


Plain english summary: It is recommended that research studies are carried out with or by patients and the public through their involvement from the beginning and in as many stages as possible (known as PPI). Some studies formally invite patients and the public to participate in interviews and focused group discussions to collect views about topics (known as qualitative research). In our study on financial incentives for giving up smoking in pregnancy and breastfeeding, we combined both PPI and qualitative research to include the views of women with a range of experiences of smoking and breastfeeding. We involved two mother and baby groups in disadvantaged areas of North East Scotland and North West England as research partners on our team. First, we asked members to comment on our research plans and documents, which is standard PPI. Second, we asked members to participate in voice recorded discussions, contributing to qualitative research data. These discussions revealed different views from those that we heard through research interviews. They allowed us to develop more relevant research tools and resources. Members also helped us to identify people outside the groups who we could interview. Combining involvement and participation helped us to include the views of a wide range of women from 'harder-to-reach' groups who don't usually take part in research. This was important because the research was intended for women who could benefit from incentives to stop smoking in pregnancy and breastfeed, often present in such groups. Positive continuing relationships and trust improved on involvement or participation alone.

Background: Patient and public involvement (PPI) in all research studies is recommended from the earliest point and in as many stages as possible. Qualitative research is also recommended in the early stages of designing complex intervention trials. Combining both together might enable inclusion of 'harder-to-reach' perspectives from the target population(s), particularly when the research is intended for their benefit. However, the interface between PPI and qualitative research has received little attention. In a multi-disciplinary, mixed methods study to inform the design of incentive trials for smoking cessation in pregnancy and breastfeeding, we combined PPI and qualitative research, with some overlap. Mother and baby groups from two geographically separate disadvantaged areas, with diverse experiences of the smoking and breastfeeding, but no training or previous involvement in research, were recruited as PPI research grant co-applicants. An iterative partnership approach facilitated involvement in research conduct and design across all project phases. Group PPI members were also invited to contribute to more formal qualitative data collection, as and when indicated by the research questions, and emerging analysis.

Results: We engaged with 'harder-to-reach' women in mother and baby group settings, rather than in academic or home environments. These settings were relaxed and informal, which facilitated rapport-building, disclosures of unexpected information and maintained trust. Twenty-one women participated in standard PPI activities: feedback on study protocols and documents; piloting questionnaires and interview schedules. PPI members voiced some different perspectives from those captured within the qualitative dataset. Nineteen participated in focused qualitative research. Novel aspects were audio recorded PPI discussions, which contributed qualitative data; first, to interpret systematic review findings and construct intervention vignettes for use in the qualitative research; second, to assist with recruitment to improve sample diversity in the formal qualitative dataset; and third, to translate theory and findings presented in a researcher generated logic model into a lay tool. This had face validity for potential trial participants and used the metaphor of a ladder.

Conclusions: Combining and overlapping PPI and qualitative research added 'harder-to-reach' contributions, sample diversity, trust and engagement in creative approaches beyond what could be achieved through PPI or qualitative research alone.

Keywords: Complex interventions; Feasibility studies; Participatory methods; Public involvement; Qualitative research; Service user collaboration; Trial design; ‘harder-to-reach’ perspectives.