From surveys to stories: Uncovering health equity across the UK

Researcher Lavanya Kumaran describes how she experienced and enjoyed our research for the People's Health Trust in late 2023. We visited and spent time with four projects as our focus moved from surveys to stories, exploring health equity across the UK. 

In 2022 People’s Health Trust (PHT) commissioned Social Life to assess the impact of two programmes across the UK, Active Communities and Local Conversations. These programmes address local health and strive to improve health equity. 

Four waves of research later, we concluded our study of 26 handpicked projects scattered across the UK. These projects were chosen to best represent the goals of the two programmes. Throughout the initial three waves it has been largely a quantitative affair. This included a meticulously crafted online survey featuring multiple choice questions and a handful of open ended questions. Over the course of the three waves, this approach provided invaluable insight into the impact the programmes have on their communities. 

When wave four came around, the drill was familiar, tweaking the online survey, including new questions to address the influence of the cost of living crisis. In previous rounds, questions to assess the impact of COVID-19 had been included. In addition to the survey there was a delightful qualitative element. An opportunity to meet the practitioners who run the programmes and the community participants who take part in them. An opportunity to put some faces to some names. 

The research approach finalised, four projects across the country were selected. A Women's Group in Wembley, London. An over 50s group in Kirkwood, Glasgow. A community gardening group in Longbenton, Newcastle. A local forum and hub in Caia Park, Wrexham. Although I had the opportunity to only visit three locations, each visit proved equally enriching.

The first project was a local adventure. The Chalkhill Community Action (CCA) group within the heart of the Chalkhill estate in Wembley. The CCA is a sanctuary for local women, run by local women. Accompanied by my colleague we were invited to one of their weekly Women’s Night. After work we made our way through the cold to a warm glowing room. We helped with some furniture arrangements, a small gesture gladly received by our hosts. Once we settled amongst the other women attending on the night, a TV and a karaoke machine made an unexpected appearance. What followed was an evening mostly spent singing along to classic hits. The practitioners skillfully shot off a few admin discussions between songs. We were having a great time singing and having festive biscuits, however the main purpose of our trip was not just entertainment. We wanted to identify participants who would  have in-depth interviews with us. Through the conversations and the charm, we connected with several women eager to partake. 

The second interaction was a solo one for me. I was able to join the ladies for a drop in session. This was hosted in the reception area of the community centre, a space described as a ‘grey area’ by the practitioners. A public space that doesn't need to be booked. When I arrived participants had already settled in with free hot drinks and snacks. I too made myself comfortable and had some lovely conversations with everyone. The second part of the day was a community food share, this was open to everyone, not just local women. As everyone went about taking turns to share the produce I got to speak to a few more people. While I was there the practitioners were able to help us organise a few more in-depth interviews. 

Shortly after our first local outing, we were flight bound to Glasgow. We landed as fast as we took off, on a dark Sunday evening. The recent snowfall had frozen remnants, yet the brisk air was refreshing. We dined in the city, utilising the opportunity to explore a new city neither of us had visited before.

Monday morning we promptly made our way to Kirkwood, about 35 minutes East of Glasgow on the train. We decided to ditch the bus and walk to the community centre. We took in the local scenery and took notes of what was around. We were warmly welcomed by the chatty practitioner, who could identify us as the guests from a mile away! Our arrival coincides with the Nifty Fifty’s Christmas open day, strategically planned by us to make the most of the short trip. We settled in and took pictures of everything and anything. The participants started to come in steadily, we took this opportunity to have a few informal chats with a few people. When we weren’t chatting we became spectators in the main event room. Clapping along to the Spanish class singing Christmas carols, meditating with the wellness coach and joining in with the spirited closing performance. Amidst the festivities, we managed to have a few in-depth interviews. As the day wrapped up we finished up a few more informal chats, thanked our lovely hosts and we made our way back to Glasgow.       

We returned the next day to a much quieter environment. It was the weekly IT drop in. Participants come in to use the computer room with any task or queries they have. We were able to sit down with a few of the participants with a cup of tea and some biscuits. We also had a go at helping some participants with their IT queries, successfully. It was a fulfilling experience, on that positive note we made our way back to Glasgow to catch our flight back to London.    

While my colleague embarked on an impressive almost back-to-back from Glasgow to Longbenton in Newcastle, I took some time to reflect on  our previous two trips. Before we knew it, the last trip on the schedule came around. We concluded our research trip in Wrexham, Wales. After a three hour train ride through (what seemed to me to be) peculiar station names, we were in the centre of Wrexham. After a quick lunch in town we hopped on a bus to Caia Park, home to The Hub. On arrival, we found the space mostly empty, with the day's activities winding down. A few members of the Men’s Group were hanging around, sharing tea and checking in with each other. As guests in the space we were met with understandable scepticism from those regulars. Why were we here? What do we want from them? Who do we work for? 

Our first day was short, but our second day, once again we have timed our trip to coincide with The Hub’s Thursday Lunch Club. The weekly club for the elderly, that week with a festive twist. Although we arrived early, the team had put everything together, had already begun preparing the Christmas dinner with all the trimmings and had set up the craft table for holiday card-making. As participants trickled in they eagerly joined the craft activities. We engaged in conversations with the participants, accompanied by the sounds of Christmas carols. We managed to pull away a few of the younger participants to have more in-depth interviews. As we finished our interviews we came out to a steaming plate of homemade turkey Christmas dinner. We both scoffed it down very happily. Our day finally came to an end, we said our goodbyes and expressed our deep gratitude for hosting us. We made our way back to Wrexham to hop on a train back to London, concluding our quantitative trips for this project.

These face-to-face trips demanded some effort. We had an extremely quick turn over time to ensure we engage with the projects before everyone went away for the holidays. Nevertheless, the experience of talking to locals, and the people who run the projects was invaluable. This qualitative twist proved to be the perfect complement to the four waves of research.