Research Literacy: A Skill All Nurses Should Possess

A nurse scientist’s advice on research reviews

Only 3 to 5 percent of nurses will conduct research, but 100 percent need to be research literate, says Mark McClelland, DNP, RN, CPHQ, a nurse scientist in Cleveland Clinic’s Office of Nursing Research and Innovation. Healthcare is undergoing transformational change – the biggest change in 100 years, according to Cleveland Clinic President and CEO Toby Cosgrove, MD. Among the effects of that transformation is the necessity for nurses to become research literate.

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Healthcare landscape impels nurses to look at research


Mark McClelland, DNP, RN, CPHQ

“Everything we have known about healthcare in the past is getting turned upside down, from the provision of care to the payment for care,” says Dr. McClelland. “One of the biggest changes is that we’re no longer getting paid because we provide a service, but for good patient outcomes. And the best outcomes are achieved through evidence-based practice.”

Nurses need to know if the things they do in the clinical setting are effective. “The only way nurses can make those decisions is to review completed research findings and learn if a practice is effective,” says Dr. McClelland.

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He adds that in the past, nurses decided on practice in one of three ways:

  1. Through tradition – “We’ve always done it that way.”
  2. Through authority – “The physician told us to do it this way.”
  3. Through trial-and-error – “It’s worked in the past, so we’ll do it again.”

Those three sources of knowledge are not suited to the new healthcare environment. “The hospital industry is transitioning to a healthcare system,” says Dr. McClelland. “The industry was based on volume; the healthcare system is based on outcomes.”

Three ways to become research literate

Nurses should not confuse research with research literacy. “Simply put, research is nothing more than using measurement to answer a question,” says Dr. McClelland. “So research literacy is an appreciation and understanding of how measurement is used to answer questions.” Whether you want to know the best way to assess pain in nonverbal adults or how often to turn critically ill patients, you can likely find research reports in the literature to help make sound clinical practice decisions.

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Dr. McClelland offers three basic strategies for becoming research literate:

  1. Read research reports – “The most effective way to become research literate is to read one research report a month,” he says. “Take a diligent approach to understanding the article for your own edification. Be curious about the article! Don’t gloss over parts that are hard.” He recommends keeping a medical dictionary and research glossary nearby so you can look up terms you don’t understand.
  2. Participate in journal clubs – In the past couple of years, several of Cleveland Clinic’s hospitals have started nursing journal clubs, including Hillcrest Hospital, Medina Hospital and Akron General. Typically, nurses meet monthly to discuss a journal article they have all read in advance. A leader will provide a synopsis of the research, then the group covers questions such as: How was the sample determined? Was the sample representative of the population at large? Did the researchers list and define the variables they were interested in? Do the conclusions make sense? Are the limitations of the study stated?
  3. Talk about research with colleagues – Share articles you’ve read with nurses on your unit, and discuss any ongoing research projects in your unit or hospital.

Finally, Dr. McClelland encourages nurses to hang in there, even if the first few research reports they read seem hard to understand. Research reports generally have a set format; the more you read, the easier they are to understand. “Research is not difficult. Learning the vocabulary is difficult, just like learning French may be hard until you learn the vocabulary,” he says. “Once you learn the vocabulary, it becomes less intimidating or mystifying. I believe every nurse is capable of becoming research literate.”