Engaging patients and family members as partners in research studies has become a widespread practice in healthcare. However, relatively little has been documented about what happens after the research study ends. For example, is patient and family engagement embedded in the wider infrastructure of organizations, and if so how? What are the long-term effects of engaging parents on research teams on the culture of how research is conducted? This study seeks to address these two gaps by examining how a culture of family engagement has been built over time at CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.
This study is based on ethnographic research methodology and combines elements of organizational ethnography, interviews, and collaborative auto-ethnography with parent partners, researchers, staff, and trainees.
Since the inception of CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research at McMaster University in 1989, parents have been involved in research studies. Over time, this involvement evolved from being consulted on research studies to undertaking decision-making roles as partners and most recently as co-principal investigators. A growing infrastructure fosters a community of engagement that goes beyond the individual research study, and often beyond CanChild. This infrastructure consists of training, knowledge mobilization and social networking. In addition, the “softer” building blocks of CanChild’s culture of engagement are an openness to learning from others, a commitment to relationship building, and a drive to grow and improve. These values are espoused by the leadership and are instilled in the next generation of researchers to inform both research and clinical work. While some challenges should be acknowledged when researchers and family partners work together on research studies, we identify a number of strategies that we have used in our studies to foster authentic and meaningful family–researcher partnerships.
Engaging patients and families as partners in research constitutes a culture shift in health research, whereby studies about patients and families are carried out with them. Developing a community of engagement that transcends an individual research study is a step towards creating a culture of research that is truly shaped by the people about whom the research is being done.