There are important distinctions between a research project, service evaluation and clinical audit.
For instance, a research project may require a review by a research ethics committee (REC), whereas a service evaluation or an audit won’t. There are also similarities between these three activities, the most important being that they all require the rigorous and systematic application of methodology, data collection and analysis.
The primary aim of a research project is to derive generalisable new knowledge. A research project typically addresses clearly defined questions, aims and objectives. A very important component of a research project is its protocol which contains a full description of the methodology used and will help the researchers ensure adherence to it. As mentioned above, a research project usually involves a REC review. Finally, results of the research, or the theories gained from the research, should apply beyond the sample of the population upon which the research is based.
Example of a current research project: What arts based interventions do CNWL arts psychotherapists use during the different phases of therapy (beginning, middle and end phases) and how do these interventions help to achieve clinical outcomes?
A service evaluation is a way to define or measure current practice within a service. The results of the service evaluation help towards producing internal recommendations for improvements that are not intended to be generalised beyond the service area. Therefore a service evaluation is designed to answer the question "what standard does this service achieve?".
Example of a current service evaluation project: A service-user-led evaluation of the CNWL Arts Psychotherapies Service, the aims being to establish baseline data of patient reported experience (PREM) and to make recommendations where necessary.
A clinical audit is a way to understand whether a service is meeting defined standards of best practice (these may be achieved through a service evaluation or/and research).
The results of a clinical audit help to enforce good clinical practice and produce internal recommendations for any necessary improvements. A clinical audit is therefore designed to answer the question "does this service reach a predetermined standard?".
Example of a current clinical audit: A clinical audit of the CNWL Arts Psychotherapies Service, the aims being to examine whether contact targets are being met and whether there are changes in patient clustering.
Similarities and differences
The main difference between a service evaluation and a clinical audit is that the latter makes reference to a standard whereas the former does not. Both service evaluation and clinical audit only involve interventions well established within the institution, as opposed to a research project which may involve new interventions.
In both service evaluation and clinical audit, the choice of treatment is decided between the clinician and patient, whereas in the case of clinical outcomes-based research a randomisation process is usually used to allocate treatment. Furthermore, treatment allocation by protocol is only done in the case of a research project. Finally, neither service evaluation nor clinical audits involve a REC review, whereas a research project typically does.