What does evidence-informed practice look like?

29 September 2014

Jessica BroomeIn her latest blog for Research in Practice, Jessica Broome talks about the value and importance of evidence-informed practice, and examines both what it is, and what it looks like in an organisation.

Research in Practice has been supporting professionals from across children’s services to embed evidence into their day-to-day practice for over 18 years now. And while most of us are familiar with what it means to be an evidence-informed practitioner, it can be useful to remind ourselves.

Whether you’re deciding on an appropriate pathway plan for a young person leaving care, assessing the impact of domestic violence on a child, or recognising and responding to incidences of neglect, evidence-informed practice is essential to making fully informed and defensible decisions.

Social care staff make decisions about the lives of children and families which can have a lasting and significant impact. It is our responsibility to make sure any interventions are decided using the best available evidence of what is likely to help. Without this, we run the risk of ‘experimenting’ and possibly making harmful decisions which can be detrimental to both the children and families we work with, as well as to professional integrity.

So what do we mean when we talk about evidence-informed practice?

For Research in Practice, it is not just about applying academic research to practice situations – while we support and champion the use of academic evidence in practice, we do not consider it superior to all things.

We choose instead to follow a model which draws on three sources of evidence:

  1. Professional judgement from experience
  2. Relevant evidence from policy and research
  3. Service-user views 

Barratt and Hodson (2006) noted, “The evidence-informed practitioner carefully considers what research evidence tells them in the context of a particular child, family or service, and then weighs this up alongside knowledge drawn from professional experience and the views of service users to inform decisions about the way forward.”

By combining these three elements, the practitioner can ensure that a range of factors – including research – influence their judgements.

How do I know I’m working in an evidence-informed way?

This is a question that we are often asked. It can be difficult to describe what evidence-informed working is, so it’s sometimes easier to look at what an evidence-informed practitioner would do, or be able to do:

  1. A practitioner can articulate key messages from research on significant topics (‘we know from research...’).
  2. They know where to get access to good quality research on these topics.
  3. They can take steps to keep their knowledge up-to-date (read regularly, use awareness bulletins, attend research based events).
  4. They spend time reflecting on their own experiences and identifying the learning.
  5. When challenged, they can explain where their knowledge comes from (‘I know this from...’).
  6. They actively seek out research to inform their decisions about cases (e.g. assessments, plans, recommendations).
  7. They are able to cite research when needed.

Do these qualities look familiar to you? Can you identify them in yourself? It’s likely you’re doing a number of them all the time, possibly without realising. Social care staff should be (and are) inquisitive. They routinely explore and test out hypotheses, attempting to seek meaning in what they find.

How easy is it to work in an evidence-informed way?

Some social care staff may find the above list of qualities quite daunting, and I know from my own conversations with staff from across children’s services that finding the time and resources to effectively apply evidence to practice can sometimes be tricky.

In Munro’s 2011 report, she said, “Another crucial aspect of professional development is an organisational culture that not only provides access to research but values it and makes it feasible for workers to use it well. It is unrealistic to expect every social worker to have the time to search for research articles and the skill to appraise the research methods used in order to form a view of the reliability or validity of the findings… access to the evidence base must be supported by organisational and professional research literacy.”

You can’t do it on your own. It is important that practitioners feel encouraged and empowered to access and apply evidence to their practice. Time should be allowed for reading and for keeping up-to-date with research on significant topics; and access to relevant research should be supported and enabled.    

Why is it important? Why does it matter?

Having the time and space to read and reflect on messages from research, as well as on our own professional experience, whilst also considering the views of service-users, is really crucial for building professional confidence across the sector. If practitioners feel confident and supported, this has a direct impact on the children and families worked with, not only in their day-to-day interactions, but for their long-term outcomes.

By ensuring that this triad of evidence is incorporated into all decision-making, we can be confident that our decisions are considered, transparent and defensible.

Whilst we recognise that there is huge pressure on the sector (particularly in these times of austerity), I firmly believe that we can all - whether as individuals, teams or as whole organisations - take steps to ensure that the decisions we make are fully evidence-informed.

Have you found it difficult to work in an evidence-informed way? What barriers or enablers have you found over the years? Do you agree with us that it can be transformational for day-to-day practice? Let us know your thoughts below.

Further reading:

Barratt M and Hodson R (2006) Firm foundations: a practical guide to organisational support for the use of research evidence. Dartington: Research in Practice.

Munro E (2011) The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report A child-centred system. Department for Education.

Colleagues who found this blog informative might also be interested in our latest Practice Tool, Using research: Tools to support evidence-informed practice. This is a series of tools that can be downloaded from our website and used within teams to both assess and build on evidence-informed practice experience and skills. This is currently free to our Partners, and is available for purchase for others across the network.

We also offer workshops that can be delivered locally to your workforce around this topic. These workshops, delivered by experienced facilitators, draw on almost two decades of experience that Research in Practice has gained working on this topic. More information on these workshops can be found on our website (here). Please contact ask@rip.org.uk if you would be interested in purchasing any of these workshops for your learning and development needs.

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