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A collaboration between the Primary Care Research Centre within the School of Primary Care, Population Sciences and Medical Education (PPM); a member of the NIHR School of Primary Care Research, and the Wessex Public Involvement Network (PIN)

 Sonia Newman, Patient and Public Involvement Officer, Southampton Primary Care Research Centre (PCRC)
Katherine Baker, Patient and Public Involvement Officer, Applied Research Council (ARC) WESSEX
Michael Bahrami-Hessari, Patient and Public Involvement Officer, Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC)


In the later part of 2019, we were successful in receiving a NIHR School for Primary Care Research grant award to focus a piece of work on diversity in patient and public involvement. Our aim was to trial novel and creative approaches of public involvement and engagement to reach new and underserved audiences; building sustainable relationships with parents/carers of young children who attend a local sure start centre and to build bridges for researchers to engage with families outside of the ‘academic’ community.

This piece of work was linked to a primary care project called ‘Healthier Together’, where the main aim of the project was to provide good advice to parents of children with minor infections via a Healthier Together digital app, while rapidly identifying and connecting those at risk of more serious illness to urgent care services. We consulted with the research team to plan how our work could inform the project.

Situated on a council estate and ranked amongst the most deprived in the country (Sure Start Annual Report Southampton 2018/19), we shared our ideas with the team at the sure start centre in the west cluster of Southampton City, who were happy to support and work with us. We knew the team were best placed; the ‘gate keepers’ to the community, having knowledge and expertise in engaging families. They were perfectly placed to help us:

  • Co-create ‘spaces’ for engagement
  • Provide opportunities for conversations with families around children’s health
  • Increase our understanding about family concerns around acute childhood illnesses
  • Gain insight into what influences decision-making about treatments
  • Acquire family input on the Healthier Together project
  • Improve our understanding about how to involve families in future research around acute childhood illnesses

We began planning together and meeting with the sure start team; building rapport, attending family activity sessions, gaining a presence within the sure start community and generally getting stuck in helping the team to set up and clear away. Shortly after starting, we encountered an unexpected set back…. a global pandemic!  Like many, we had to reimagine and adapt. We could no longer meet face-to-face, we had to rely on building a rapport and presence virtually; a challenge indeed!

With the help of the sure start team, we used their Facebook community as a means to connect and engage with families. We posted animated short video’s presenting health questions. Those who responded with an emoji reaction ‘thumbs up, down or halfway’ were entered into a draw for an Amazon voucher and the responses helped to inform the research team.

During the period of lockdown easing, we joined the sure start team at an outdoor socially distanced scavenger hunt and set up and ran a science activity maze for the children. We’ve also joined in outdoor play sessions in the local park; singing, chalking, storytelling whilst chatting with parents/carers. Whilst we’ve lacked opportunities to be consistent with building a rapport and a presence, we have adapted and used creative means, we may not have previously considered. 

Although funding for this work ends this month, we remain committed to:

  • Building sustainable relationships with the sure start team and families who are not usually, or consistently involved in health, social care and public health research; underserved communities by joining in activities and events
  • Encouraging researchers to engage with the community
  • Producing more animated short health videos
  • Involving the community in developing resources for diversity and inclusion

Just this morning I had an email from the sure start team, with lockdown lifting in the near future….”we will be glad to have you on board!”