Tips for using case files for research projects
When using case file data in research, a number of issues need to be considered.
Consider ethical issues before you start
You must get ethical approval from the relevant research ethics board before carrying out any research. Your organisation may have its own research ethics committee, but you may need to apply to an external organisation for approval.
You’ll need the service user’s permission to use their data for research purposes. In our research, service users signed a consent form agreeing to their data being held by the NSPCC and used anonymously for research purposes.
It’s best to gain consent when a person starts using the service. You can do this after the service has finished, but consider the implications: the service user may feel uncomfortable about being contacted after disengaging with the service, and it may be difficult to get hold of them.
Before using any case file data, you must make all the information anonymous.
Collecting data and deciding how to use it
Information in case files is collected and recorded in various ways:
- referral forms often provide structured information about the service user and why they were referred to the service
- a closing report may provide a free-text narrative that gives additional information about the progress the service user has made during the programme and what helped them to do this
- you may also be able to collect information about the service itself, such as how many sessions the service user attended.
Consider how the data you need is likely to have been recorded and where in the case file it may be stored. This focuses your research, pinpoints areas of missing information and helps you timetable the data collection process.
There can be hundreds of pages within a case file and finding the right information is time consuming. Knowing about any templates that practitioners use when recording case information, such as a reporting framework, can be helpful for identifying available data in advance.
Develop a data extraction form
Devise a data extraction form. This is a template to help extract and record the data you need from each case file. Do this before you start collecting data, to help you think about the type of information needed.
It’s also helpful to structure this data extraction form so it matches the ways the case information is recorded in practice. This increases the likelihood of collecting the information you need.
Pilot your data extraction form on a small number of cases to see if it works and to identify common areas of missing information. If a substantial amount of the information you need is missing, re-think your research question or consider alternative ways to collect your data.
When extracting data, record a unique identification number on the form instead of the service user’s name to protect their identity.