Study: Community Engagement in Biomedical and Health Sciences Research

This study, from PHI’s Population Health Innovation Lab, provides a deeper understanding of the motivations, facilitators, and barriers behind conducting and/or funding biomedical and health sciences research that directly engages underrepresented communities of color.

  • Esmeralda Salas, Max Chavez, Kendra Piper, Stephanie Bultema

A review of previous biomedical and health sciences research reveals a lack of inclusion of diverse racial and ethnic groups, a factor that directly harms these communities. When biomedical and health sciences researchers only include those with European descent in their research, they miss crucial information about how diseases and treatments affect underrepresented communities of color.

This study, conducted by PHI’s Population Health Innovation Lab, is an exploration into the motivations, facilitators, and barriers that both biomedical and health sciences researchers and funders face when conducting community engaged research and community-based participatory research (CBPR). Research results lend insight into the current community engagement landscape by showing the various approaches employed to engage communities in research, the ways funders support community engagement, and how both researchers and funders operationalize community engagement. From this knowledge, funding organizations can gain a stronger understanding of community engagement and how to support researchers in community engaged research, especially those who work with underrepresented communities of color.

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Findings revealed that researchers commonly used both passive and active community engagement strategies. Passive community engagement strategies include basic forms of community engagement that are typically one-time activities, such as a researcher informing the community about a research project or sharing the results of the research project with the community. Active community engagement strategies include community engagement efforts that are bi-directional and give more power to the community by including community members in decision-making roles throughout the research process.

Major Themes from Interviews with Biomedical and Health Sciences Researchers and Funders:

  1. Funders can be barriers to community engagement;
  2. Researchers who value community perspectives and experiences are more motivated to do community engagement;
  3. Researchers need to expand from only doing passive community engagement strategies to a combination of both passive and active community engagement strategies;
  4. Relationship building and trust between researchers and communities are critical to preventing harmful community engagement approaches; and,
  5. The importance of recommendations by researchers to academia and funders to increase and improve community engagement efforts.

“Sometimes, when you’re doing heavy analysis, nothing makes sense. And I go out and I design a study and the engagement strategies are working, and I get to see improvements in population level outcomes. I think that helps me and knowing that part of the reason why those kinds of strategies and those kinds of programs work is because of making sure that we incorporate different voices within communities. I think that’s been a big, significant motivation for me to keep doing community.” – Study participant

Strategies to Operationalize Community Engagement: Recommendations to Researchers and Funders

Community Engagement Recommendations for Biomedical and Health Sciences Researchers

  • Learn to view and understand community engagement in research as an ongoing process, not an outcome.
  • Create opportunities for shared understanding with community partners.
  • Build cultural competency and utilize cultural intelligence strategies

Community Engagement Recommendations for Funders of Biomedical and Health Sciences Research

  • Provide access to courses or workshops on principles of community engagement, especially on building relationships and trust, effective communication, and cultural competency.
  • Provide technical assistance (TA) opportunities to researchers, including providing strategic planning on community engagement efforts through staff consultations and additional materials.
  • Create mentorship opportunities where researchers who need guidance on community engagement efforts can connect with more experienced community engaged researchers.
  • Provide researchers with a forum for reflection on community engagement efforts, such as a community of practice.

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