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2. Identify & Define the Research Question

This is the second part of the SVT Research Series continuing from ‘A Roadmap to Research’ in the Winter Newsletter. In this article, we describe the first step in any research project: identifying and defining the research question.

As a profession, we should identify the need for a specific question to be answered. A commonly encountered approach is to collect data, or collate available data and seek to ‘turn them into a research project’. A better approach is to start with a question of interest, or from a gap in our understanding. Research may seek to address questions related to:

  •  opportunities to improve patient care or treatment
  •  opportunities to improve the service we provide
  •  a gap in our speciality knowledge
  •  a problem associated with a specific vascular disease
  •  the development or validation of a new imaging method or technique.

Conducting a study to answer the research question may guide our clinical practice and ensure, wherever possible, that our practice is evidence-based. Bridging the gap between research and clinical practice in this way will enable us to continually improve patient care and outcomes.

The National Institute of Healthcare Research (NIHR) simplifies the research process within the NHS to encourage and support participation in research in the healthcare setting with the goal of improving patient outcomes. By working with professionals, patients and the public from a spectrum of service providers, the NIHR generates a list of priority topics for health, public health and social care research and their website ( is a good source of guidance and a starting point for identifying a research need.

Once a clinical problem has been identified it can be translated it into a research question. At this stage it is important to define the research question. If the proposed study to answer the research question is generalisable OR transferable the study should be classed as research. Generalisable means that the study findings can be applied to a broader population or setting (e.g. a criteria for quantifying disease severity), while transferable means that the study findings can apply to a similar context or setting as the study (e.g. the findings could be applied in other Vascular Studies Units). In addition, note that most research projects will require NHS Research Ethics Committee Review (NHS REC review).

The Health Research Authority (HRA) website provides extensive information on how to classify a project ( and the HRA Decision Tool ( can be used to ensure that the study is defined correctly. The Decision Tool is quick and easy to use and consists of a series of questions about your proposed study. There is also a link from here to determine whether ethical approval will be required: It is worth using the Decision Tool in the early stages of identifying a research project and then revisiting it once the study design has been finalised.

If the study question relates to a quality improvement process (“Does it meet the standards set?”) or a measure of current care (“how good is our current practice”), it is not a research question and rather will be a clinical audit and service evaluation, respectively. Clinical audits review current practice against a standard and implement changes to practice in order to improve patient care or outcomes. Service evaluations are a measure of current care and often use interviews or questionnaires to do so. For both clinical audit and service evaluation there should be no randomisation and neither require NHS REC review.

Identifying a research question is important; it is the basis of the entire project. Thinking carefully about the question is therefore vital. Performing a literature review and understanding relevant material to the question shall be covered in our next newsletter article.