At some point most health professionals will have questions about what or why things happen in the clinical or health service setting. A systematic approach to investigating these questions will optimise the chance of a meaningful result (positive or negative) and minimise time and effort in doing work or collecting data that is of limited use or that really doesn’t answer the question.

Research can be defined in many ways, but for simplicity let’s define research as any activity that is conducted to increase our knowledge or understanding of the world around us. In allied health, research might be considered as the systematic investigation of a problem, issue or question which increases knowledge and understanding of health and of the provision of care.

While research can seem intimidating it doesn’t have to be. In fact, research is something that, as health professionals, you are probably already doing without realising you are doing it. For example, at some stage you have probably been asked to prepare a report regarding your workload. No doubt you would have started by thinking about what this report needed to contain: How many clients did I see last month?; What did I see them for?; What procedures did I do?; How many people didn’t turn up?; What was the average time taken for the different appointments or procedures?; and so forth.

To answer these questions you would have needed data or information from various sources to give you insight. Perhaps you thought about whether anyone before you had done similar work and, if so, you might have obtained copies of these reports to see how they went about the task. You would then have considered what data you needed to collect, where the data might come from and how you were going to collect it. Perhaps you thought about how reliable the data were and its limitations. You would have analysed the data in some way, interpreted the results and written your report. This report might have compared your current workload with your workload over previous periods; or, with the workload of other departments. You might also have made recommendations about changing systems or about streamlining future reporting processes.

If you have done something like the above then you would have successfully begun your engagement in the research process, which essentially consists of:

  • identifying the issue or problem
  • determining the research question
  • conducting a literature review
  • determining the study methodology and method
  • designing your data collection instruments
  • collecting the data
  • cleaning, analysing and interpreting the data
  • reflecting on your findings
  • comparing your findings with similar research conducted by others
  • identifying questions for further research
  • disseminating your results, perhaps as a conference paper or by publishing an article in an academic journal.

Research may be quantitative or qualitative or involve a mixed methods approach. Each paradigm has its disciples, and differences of opinion regarding the appropriateness of the application of different methodologies have been the source of vigorous debate over the years. There is now general agreement, at least in the public health arena, that public health research benefits from multi-method approaches; that is, by the application of qualitative and quantitative methods, and incorporation of reflective and participatory action methods into the research process as required.


Research & You

While some concepts can be challenging, methods daunting and the terminology confusing, research can also be fun and rewarding. So don’t be dissuaded from conducting your own research. Consider your practice and reflect on the following questions: 

  • Have you conducted research in your role? If so, which research method did you use? What did you learn from the research process?
  • How can you incorporate research into your practice?
  • How would research impact your practice?


Useful Resources

There are many books and other references available to help guide you. Even better, there are many people who will be willing to help and offer advice; academic staff based at any of the 11 University Departments of Rural Health or, working in one of the more than 20 Primary Health Care, Research Evaluation and Development (PHCRED) programs around the country. Refer to the PHCRED webpage for more information. Also refer to the resources below for more information.

Research design and methods

Quantitative Research

Qualitative Research


  • Polgar S, Thomas, SA. Introduction to research in the health sciences , 6th ed, Elsevier, Edinburgh; 2013.
  • Leedy PD. Practical Research: planning and design, 9th ed, Prentice Hall PTR, Upper Saddle River; 2009.
  • Hickson M. Research handbook for health care professionals , Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford; 2008.
  • Creswell JW. Research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches , 3rd ed, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, Calif; 2009.