Research evidence key to health policy decisions

September / October 2012 | Volume 11, Issue 5

Dr. John Lavis speaks at a podium
Photo by Jeff Gray/Fogarty

Dr. John Lavis says health
policymakers need to
incorporate relevant, high-
quality scientific evidence
in their decision making.

More effective types of research evidence - or "briefs" - are needed to better inform health policy decisions, according to Dr. John Lavis, a knowledge transfer and public policy expert who spoke recently at the NIH. Lavis described the challenges to using research evidence in policy decisions, including institutional or economic constraints, evidence that isn't easy to use or relevant, or policymakers not valuing evidence as an information source.

Often, research evidence must compete with other factors in the decision-making process. For example, researchers and clinicians in Uganda face cultural challenges to implementing circumcision programs for HIV prevention. "There have been so many times when a researcher has claimed to have a significant finding without taking into account ethnographic or religious considerations," said Lavis. "We must find the most effective way forward given the circumstances and the setting."

Lavis also cited gloomy economies as a factor that can affect evidence's impact on policy. "Recessions change what's possible and what's not," he said.

However, new approaches being developed to meet these challenges are cause for optimism, said Lavis. They include workbooks, clearinghouses of policy-relevant documents, training for stakeholders and rapid response services that can deliver research evidence. He recommended regular dialogue among stakeholders, researchers and policymakers, with an evidence brief serving as the starting point for deliberations.

Lavis is a professor at both the Harvard School of Public Health and Canada's McMaster University. He co-created and oversees Health Systems Evidence, a nonprofit online repository. The database is considered the world's most comprehensive free-access source for high-quality evidence on how to improve health systems and provide cost-effective programs, services and drugs to populations in need.

The lecture was sponsored by Fogarty's Center for Global Health Studies in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute's Center for Global Health and the Pan American Health Organization.

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