Help me: I’m interdisciplinary! – A blog post about interdisciplinary health services research


Different ways of thinkingIn this post, new guest blogger Jay Shaw looks at the challenges of working across disciplines in research and what can be done to address them.

I have a dilemma. I am a postdoctoral researcher in health services and policy research at University Health Network in Toronto, Canada. I am trained as a physiotherapist; I did my PhD in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, which was supervised by a physiotherapist, a psychologist, and a nurse; and my postdoctoral advisory committee includes a geographer, a sociologist, and an anthropologist. I guess I’m still sorting through my disciplinary identity crisis.

This might sound a bit like an educational carnival (thanks to Mikhail Bakhtin for that one), but it’s actually just a reflection of my attempt to react to the demands of the broad field of health services and policy research. Take a quick scan of some key journals in the field and you’ll likely see that it is pretty much ideally suited for interdisciplinary perspectives and research methodologies.

Many of these key journals include contributions from health economics, epidemiology, medical sociology, health geography, health care management, and other disciplines that contribute to understanding and improving health services in a complex and globalizing world.

The issues we see in health care and policy themselves demand interdisciplinary ways of thinking, as we learn to address the economics of austerity in health care, the psychology of inter-professional teams, and the politics of policy instruments and organizational change.

My dilemma is not so much that I have chosen to look at the issues in the domain of health services and policy research from an interdisciplinary perspective. Instead, it is this: while we are getting pretty good at ‘talking the talk’ of interdisciplinary health research, we are a long way from being good at ‘walking the walk’.

Interdisciplinary research in health services and policy sounds like a wonderful idea on the surface, and I am yet to have anyone warn me against the idea of engaging in interdisciplinary study.

However, as I learn by doing interdisciplinary research I see that it can be treacherous terrain to navigate. Disciplines are steeped in years of tradition, and catching up with colleagues who were socialized into other ways of thinking about health and health care is an immense task. We cannot really expect established researchers to learn the ins and outs of widely different disciplines – we are far too busy for that. So what can we expect?

I recently had a conversation about interdisciplinary health research with Dr. Glenn Regehr of the Centre for Health Education Scholarship at the University of British Columbia. He had an elegant observation: Good interdisciplinary health research is less about satisfying all the theoretical assumptions and practical needs of the disciplines involved, and more about asking research questions that are aware of and respect the work that happens in neighboring disciplines. Without understanding how and why other disciplines ask their own questions about our shared subject matter, how can we truly understand the significance of our own approaches to health services and policy research?

Dr. Regehr was quick to point out that this does not rid us of our responsibility to collaborate. Instead it means we need to re-think what the goals of collaboration across disciplines actually are. It seems to me that the first step in redefining the goals of interdisciplinary collaboration is making a commitment to learn something about other disciplines. Then we might better understand how and why they ask the questions they do, and make more informed decisions about what our interdisciplinary collaborations can and should mean.

As I look forward to the first international BioMed Central Health Services Research Conference in London this July (1st-3rd), I am excited to see so many disciplines represented. An international list of policy experts, health economists, and implementation scientists (to name only a few) will address the evolving meaning of ‘evidence based practice’.

Here we have a great opportunity to explore the central ideas in other disciplines, and even to ask those tough questions that you might have been holding on the tip of your tongue. A conversation over a cup of tea or a pint of beer can make all the difference in understanding why and how to collaborate across disciplines.

So, what do you think? If you have a minute to chat, I’ll be at the bar.

Health Services Research conference is taking place in London from 1st-3rd July 2014. The abstract submission deadline for the conference is April 24th, 2014.

You can follow Jay on Twitter: @jayshaw29 and tweet about the BioMed Central Health Services Research conference using the hashtag #HSRconf2014

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One Comment

Mehdi Riazi

Hi Jay,

I am not a heath care researcher, but have been doing interdisciplinary research. In fact we label our discipline, Applied Linguistics, an interdisciplinary by nature given we draw on a variety of disciplines in defining and researching issues related to language teaching and learning. For example, we use theories of learning from psychology and sociology. One branch in our field work on Neurolinguistics, and another addresses issues related to professional communication through discourse analysis.

While in the past, we used to define ourselves as researchers belonging to one of the marked research paradigms (positivist vs. interpretivist) depending on the issues we were interested in and the questions we were asking, recently, however, we find ourselves as mixed-methods researchers for the obvious reason that the questions we’re now interested in lend themselves to a variety of data collection and analysis procedures.

Personally I think we are dealing with more complex problems and research questions compared to not a long time ago which require higher levels of conceptualisation and subsequently research designs. The key point therefore seems to me to recognise the complexity involved in defining research problems and research questions since research problems are now more multifaceted and multidimensional. A health care problem is absolutely a multifaceted one if it’s going to be studied in a comprehensive way. Perhaps this where different experts from different perspectives can contribute to posing questions pertaining to different facets of the problem. Truly it will be a complex procedure to bring these different questions under one umbrella and this is where an inter- and multidisciplinary phenomenon seems to start. An important step in inter- and multidisciplinary research then seems to me to conceptualise the complex problem in light of each discipline’s contribution to the problem. You’re right that each of these disciplines have their own traditions of what counts as a problem, what questions can be asked and how the questions could be answered. All have their own criteria for their legitimacy and thus requiring a methodological pluralism on the part of inter- multidisciplinary researchers.

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