The Importance of Team Work and Shared Learning in Collaborative International Health Research

By Eleanor MacPherson

Leaving my two young children in the UK and travelling for work is always tough. But spending time in the company of the Dodowa Health Service research team made being away worthwhile. I, like many qualitative researchers, know that the skill of the person collecting the data is the most important factor to ensuring good quality data. Yet, anyone who has tried conducting a qualitative interview or focus group discussions knows how challenging it can be to do it skilfully. By spending ten days with the Dodowa Health Service research team, under Dr Margaret Gyapong’s excellent leadership, I learnt so much about how to provide rigorous inclusive training in collaborative research.

Here are my *Four Take Home Messages:

You have to understand the research topic before you can begin: Neglected tropical diseases are complicated! As a social scientist who has only recently begun working on these types of tropical diseases I know how challenging it can be to understand the complex way that a mosquito, black-fly or snail can ultimately contribute to the transmission of worms to people. Further, if someone is infected it may take a number of years for them to experience ill-health. The focus of this round of data collection is lymphatic filariasis and understanding why some districts in Ghana are still facing on-going transmission despite a number of rounds of preventative chemotherapy. The training began with an introduction as to what lymphatic filariasis is and how it is transmitted. Building on this information the team then discussed the purpose of the research and the groups who could best provide insights into these questions. During the training discussions in the group frequently returned to these areas. This allowed the team members, particularly those new to the topic, the opportunity to ask clarifying questions and gain further understanding.

Translating and refining the topic guide as a team can improve the tools: Conducting research on international health often requires the researchers to work across multiple languages. Yet, the way language is used is of the utmost importance to ensuring participants understand what is being asked of them. The Dodowa team took a two-step approach to translation. They went through the topic guides together in English first, discussing as a group whether they made sense; whether they had covered all the research objectives and whether the order of the topics worked. As the team went through they re-ordered some of the questions, removed questions that didn’t make sense and refined the language. The second stage was to translate the guides into Twi and Fante. At this point the whole team contributed to the translation taking turns to read the guide and holding spirited discussions about the correct meaning of the words.

Practice, practice, practice: The team used role-play as key part of the training. This gave every single member of the team an opportunity to practice conducting a qualitative interview and a focus group discussion multiple times. Sheila Addei or Mama She as the team like to call her oversaw the role play. She has more than a decade of experience conducting qualitative research studies and together with Dr Margaret who has more than twenty years’ experience provided fascinating insights into what has worked well and what hasn’t when conducting qualitative research! Mama Shelia told the team about how during one of her first interviews the participant told her off for failing to use the topic guide correctly. The team also took turns giving difficult responses to provide the researchers with an opportunity to practice managing these challenges before they went to the field. Every team members’ role was practiced including the note taker and the observer to ensure that the person undertaking this role fully understood their duties.

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From Left: Sheila Addei (Mama She), Dr Margaret Gyapong, Sabina Asiamah, Piloting the FGD & Seasonal calendar in the field, Dr Ellie MacPherson with team, Irene & Selase practising interview and Adriana Opong

Strong leadership combined with an empowered team is a powerful combination: One of my favourite parts of my time in Ghana was feeling part of such an empowered and well-led team. It was fantastic to witness even the most junior members of the team having their voices listened to, and thoughts respected. Creating space for reflection and shared-learning is such a core component of qualitative research but doing it well when working in a team can be challenging. Respect and inclusion are fundamental to qualitative research practice and by placing these at the centre of their work, the Dodowa team did a fantastic job. I am sure this practice will continue throughout the whole of the project.

I know I have returned to the UK a better researcher thanks to the team and very excited for the next stage of the collaborative research process.

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