Consider what’s strong, not what’s wrong: Why we should turn health research on its head

Becky Gulc explains why a new asset-based approach is reaping results

Health inequalities are increasing in the UK. Yet, at the same time, local authorities are charged with ensuring their residents have healthier futures.

It’s a huge challenge. One tool councils use to help assess the full scale of that challenge is the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. This research helps to identify the health characteristics of people in their area, as well as the community’s needs and priorities.

Qa Research regularly helps local authorities, health and social care organisations, to collate, collect, and analyse such information. Doing so, it can become all too easy to consider people’s health needs as problems to be addressed.

But what if we flip this on its head? What if we start by looking at the positives?

This is something we are increasingly working with organisations to achieve. Instead of focusing on what isn’t going so well we focus on what is going well – and how we can build on that to ultimately address the identified ‘need’.

Here’s an example.

For one local authority, we identified that breastfeeding rates in certain communities remain consistently low, despite ongoing efforts to address this. When it came to action-planning it was important to reframe how we thought about the issue.

Let’s not focus on those that do not breastfeed. Instead let’s focus on those that do.

In every community at least some mothers breastfeed. The important step is to learn about what enables and supports these women to breastfeed, and consider how this can be shared more widely in the community.

Championing communities

Ultimately, it’s about moving to asset-based approaches to public health (ie building on existing strengths). Nesta have produced this short film outlining asset-based approaches being taken by three local authority areas.

Looking at research findings through an asset-based lens can provide useful clues about how to encourage community ownership and engagement, as opposed to focusing on purely service-based responses, or simply ‘fixing what’s wrong’.

And this approach will only become more important as resources and public funding are increasingly stretched.

Let’s champion strength and potential in communities and build this into our research from the onset. We often find that research participants are interested in becoming more involved in services, in supporting their peers and tackling local issues head-on – if they are given the knowledge, capacity and support to do so.

It’s often that next step that’s missing. We may not always be able to ‘co-produce’ services in its truest form, but we can connect better, follow-through better. Let’s get more of those feedback loops in place. Let’s get organisations connected with the people they need to connect with, rather than just hear what they have to say via a third party.

Admittedly, this approach requires more resources. Such asset-based approaches need driving forward by organisations, and that takes investment.

However, when we focus on strengths, we find it becomes a virtuous circle. Mobilising interest and engagement motivates everyone involved, from the residents themselves through to the public and third sector workers who support them.

Top tips

Collaborate on the ‘what next’

Researchers want to know they’re making a difference with their work, that the voices of those consulted are truly being heard. With everyday access to online meetings it’s easier than ever to involve a wide-range of people in discussions about what the research means and how the findings are best taken forward. Involve the researchers!

Take those with lived experience with you!

How many times have you sat in meetings deliberating key research/evaluation findings looked around and there has been no one with lived experience in the room? Let’s involve those with LE more, and better, right through the research process. Let’s really show them their views and experiences matter, they are the experts and we need to value this.

Flip the ‘problem’

Instead of focusing on why people ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t’, look also at those who ‘do’ and ‘can’ – this might uncover something we could otherwise miss.

Becky Gulc is a research manager at Qa Research. You can contact her on or 01904 632 039