Research co-design in health: a rapid overview of reviews

Health Res Policy Syst. 2020 Feb 11;18(1):17. doi: 10.1186/s12961-020-0528-9.


Background: Billions of dollars are lost annually in health research that fails to create meaningful benefits for patients. Engaging in research co-design - the meaningful involvement of end-users in research - may help address this research waste. This rapid overview of reviews addressed three related questions, namely (1) what approaches to research co-design exist in health settings? (2) What activities do these research co-design approaches involve? (3) What do we know about the effectiveness of existing research co-design approaches? The review focused on the study planning phase of research, defined as the point up to which the research question and study design are finalised.

Methods: Reviews of research co-design were systematically identified using a rapid overview of reviews approach (PROSPERO: CRD42019123034). The search strategy encompassed three academic databases, three grey literature databases, and a hand-search of the journal Research Involvement and Engagement. Two reviewers independently conducted the screening and data extraction and resolved disagreements through discussion. Disputes were resolved through discussion with a senior author (PB). One reviewer performed quality assessment. The results were narratively synthesised.

Results: A total of 26 records (reporting on 23 reviews) met the inclusion criteria. Reviews varied widely in their application of 'research co-design' and their application contexts, scope and theoretical foci. The research co-design approaches identified involved interactions with end-users outside of study planning, such as recruitment and dissemination. Activities involved in research co-design included focus groups, interviews and surveys. The effectiveness of research co-design has rarely been evaluated empirically or experimentally; however, qualitative exploration has described the positive and negative outcomes associated with co-design. The research provided many recommendations for conducting research co-design, including training participating end-users in research skills, having regular communication between researchers and end-users, setting clear end-user expectations, and assigning set roles to all parties involved in co-design.

Conclusions: Research co-design appears to be widely used but seldom described or evaluated in detail. Though it has rarely been tested empirically or experimentally, existing research suggests that it can benefit researchers, practitioners, research processes and research outcomes. Realising the potential of research co-design may require the development of clearer and more consistent terminology, better reporting of the activities involved and better evaluation.

Keywords: Research co-design; community–academic partnership; participatory research; patient and public involvement; research engagement.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / organization & administration*
  • Community-Based Participatory Research / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Interinstitutional Relations*
  • Research Design*
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic