UCL Consultants Ltd


UCL lab helps to improve global health through rapid, real-time research

Academics from the Rapid Research Evaluation and Appraisal Lab (RREAL) have been working with non-profits to understand health needs in real-time, enabling positive changes in healthcare delivery.

RREAL Lab - illustration of three people completing lab work

11 March 2024

In the world of healthcare, it's crucial to understand and meet patient needs for the best results. Healthcare is always changing, and emergencies can happen fast. Traditional research methods, with their inherent time delays, exacerbate the challenge of responding promptly to emerging healthcare issues. In light of this, the Rapid Research Evaluation and Appraisal Lab (RREAL) was established to develop dynamic and agile approaches for research. RREAL employs innovative methods that facilitate swift research execution and real-time sharing of results. This proactive approach allows for immediate adjustments in healthcare delivery to meet evolving demands. 

Collaborating with UCL Consultants (UCLC), the team has engaged with diverse stakeholders, including the NHS, Wellcome Trust, Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. Notably, RREAL's impact extends to regions in the Global South, where research access is traditionally challenging, and infrastructure is more delicate. In these contexts, RREAL's network of collaborating partners and methods for community involvement has proven particularly effective, contributing to improved interventions in a timely manner.

Gaining a real-time understanding of healthcare

RREAL set out to develop and implement research methods that could inform policy and practice. The effectiveness of these methods caught the attention of external organisations, opening the possibility for a university-based team to have real-world impact and establish partnerships beyond academia. Creating a process of working with UCL Consultants was vital to consolidate this structure. UCL Consultants provided RREAL with the administrative support necessary to set up contracts, pull together departmental teams, and develop budgets in time for a rapid response.  

The moment you put ‘rapid’ in your title, you’re bound to that. When organisations started approaching us, they were doing so because they needed some research to be done well, and to be done quickly. UCL Consultants understood that from the beginning, and it was incredibly important to have streamlined processes set up to deal with this. It now means we’re able to do a number of projects fast – and sometimes in parallel. I think the organisations we work with see this as something that sets us apart.”  - Professor Cecilia Vindrola-Padros, Co-Founder and Director of RREAL.

RREAL has become a global leader in rapid research, appraisals and evaluations by establishing robust guidelines for implementing these approaches. Rapid appraisals are speedy diagnostic studies that offer a quick snapshot of the current situation, helping partner organisations make swift decisions on how to respond. Working closely with UCL Consultants, RREAL has effectively applied their knowledge of rapid research so findings can be shared at a time when these can inform decisions.  

Some of this recent research has involved working with Red Cross in Honduras and Colombia to conduct unprecedented research. In Honduras, Red Cross is working in a region shaped by a significant level of gang violence. The organisation wanted to understand how that environment was affecting access to healthcare, to help plan for further resource allocation. RREAL designed a targeted study to gather the information, while minimising the time researchers spent in the field. This was due to safety considerations for both the researchers and the people participating in the study, as the context meant there were risks to both. In Colombia, Red Cross wanted to identify gaps in health prevention and promotion in prisons. Again, RREAL needed to design a robust academic study that took into account the difficult environment. 

When conducting research in complex settings, a capable contracting and legal team with international experience like UCLC’s is of the essence, UCLC’s adaptability to changing scenarios and clear communication with the client enabled us to implement the studies to the highest standard. Being able to develop long-term relationships with humanitarian aid agencies like Red Cross helps academia be present where knowledge is needed most.”  
- Dr Norha Vera San Juan, Co-Director of RREAL.

As a result of both studies, Red Cross increased its research capacity and was able to adjust its service offering in response to the findings. 

“The methods we’ve developed as a team allow for real time analysis and collaborative approaches,” Professor Vindrola-Padros explained. “This means that throughout the study, we’re able to share findings on an ongoing basis. It helps us see how the organisations we work with are taking findings on board, and we can also understand the barriers if they’re not easily able to make changes.”

Some of the team’s recent work with Doctors Without Borders has had an added capacity building strand to it. When they’ve done rapid appraisals in different contexts, RREAL academics have simultaneously trained team members from Doctors Without Borders, meaning they improve capacity within the organisation for leading their own research. In addition, RREAL has developed and delivered training courses for Doctors Without Borders branches in London, Barcelona and other locations in Europe. This means the organisation now has field teams who can do rapid appraisals on a regular basis, with ad hoc support provided by RREAL.

UCL working beyond academia

RREAL has now delivered dozens of consultancy projects for a range of clients using the services of UCL Consultants. As well as rapid appraisals, many clients are seeking high quality evaluations on their service provision, scoping reviews, and support with funding allocation decisions. Delivering work that taps into real needs, the academics at RREAL continue to be very busy. For example, Dr Vera San Juan is currently leading a consultancy for Wellcome Trust looking at digital mental health tools in low and middle income countries, and Professor Vindrola-Padros is leading a series of rapid studies exploring healthcare delivery in the NHS. Having worked with UCL Consultants for a number of years, Professor Vindrola-Padros sees them as being a vital part of the team. “Diana from UCL Consultants has facilitated our projects, but they’ve become more like partners. They really understand the wider landscape.”

The feedback from clients has been consistently good. “We do an evaluation of our work every year,” Professor Vindrola-Padros said. “Clients always really value how we can negotiate contracts and set up projects. Thanks to the input from UCL Consultants, it means our team can hit the ground running from day one of a project. This type of work is messy and new challenges always come up. But clients value our responsiveness and the way we communicate. Ultimately, they come to us because we’ve got the academic background and rigour, the UCL stamp of approval by being academics here, alongside the efficiency of a consultancy firm.”

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