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Why use literature reviews in health and social care?
Why use literature reviews in health and social care?

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1 Information overload?

Bust sculpture of Seneca the Younger

What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles their owners could scarcely read through in his whole lifetime? The mass of books burdens the student without instructing him, and it is far better to devote yourself to a few authors than to get lost among many.

(Seneca, 2005, p. 45)

Seneca wrote these words 2,000 years ago; as a Stoic philosopher he sought ‘tranquillity of mind’. He felt that one source of stress in life was simply ‘too much information’.

Yet then, as today, we all need information to negotiate our lives. Whether we are health service users or practitioners, we need to get the right kind of information to obtain or deliver the best, most appropriate service. How do we know what the right, most helpful kind of information is?

A lot of ‘good information’ used to be located behind the walls of university libraries. Nowadays a lot of information can be found on the web and social media. However these sources also give many examples of ‘fake news’. (e.g. Sommariva et al., 2018). Balancing this, the internet allows non-professionals to find evidence with which they can challenge health and social care practitioners. Professionals can no longer simply rely on the status of being a ‘professional’. Consumers’ rights and citizens’ rights imply that the services we receive or practise should be evidence-based. For all stakeholders it becomes very important to discern what ‘counts’ as good evidence for adopting a particular policy or practice in health and social care. The internet has also facilitated an explosion in the number of academic journals reporting primary empirical research allowing more people to access leading edge research. However, potentially we are still left with the same problem that Seneca encountered 2,000 years ago – namely potential information overload. Learning about how to conduct a literature review in a systematic way can cut through the mass of research out there in health and social care.

Using a literature review to inform health and social care policy and practice can utilise existing research to answer new questions. At the very least approaching information systematically might identify the need for new research. Significantly, because so much research is now accessible online it means that we might be able to answer new questions. Literature reviews are often considered ‘very academic’ but actually they are a practical way to interrogate research and find answers. Whether you are a service user, carer or health and social care practitioner, learning how to conduct a literature review can put good evidence in your hands. It can give you a powerful tool to introduce and employ evidence-based policy and practice in your immediate environment.

The key starting point of a literature review is your research question.

Activity 1 Why are literature reviews important?

Watch the following video, which introduces the ideas that need to be considered when finding relevant literature.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1 Let’s talk about questions
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Video 1 Let’s talk about questions
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Many people work in or receive health and social care services in the UK. It is a significant part of our economy. Efficient and effective use of resources is only one rationale for why professional practice and policy should be grounded in reliable evidence. Perhaps more important than that, our policy and practice should be ethical. Either rationale needs evidence to support proposed and existing practice. And so it becomes very important as to what ‘counts’ as good evidence.

Literature reviews help summarise current evidence, to suggest both ‘what works’ and what needs to change. There is a huge amount of information ‘out there’, and cutting through that on a systematic basis begins with understanding the major types of questions we can ask. Questions of:

  • quantity, from which we expect answers in terms of numbers
  • experience or quality, in which we can expect answers in terms of how people express how they feel about an experience
  • assessment or evaluation, in which answers could be provided either in the form of number or an expression of experience but which indicate if a policy or practice has worked or not.