Expert view: policy context is key for research
Professor John Lavis
Professor John Lavis

Event wrap: 26 November 2015.

Researchers should know that evidence is simply the jumping off point in any discussion with policy makers and that many political factors will, by necessity, come into play to influence decision making on policy programs and services, keynote speaker Professor John Lavis told the NHMRC Translation Symposium.

“If you are coming to the table with evidence of benefits there are lots of questions policy makers will have about your work before you can influence their decision,” said Professor Lavis, who was in Australia as a guest of CIPHER, the Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research.

Which research box do you tick?

He said researchers who wanted to make an impact on policy first needed to consider what “box” they fit in, i.e. whether their work was in the biomedical, clinical, public/population health, or health systems spheres. And if it had potential to inform government policy making, what type of government policy should it inform? For example, policy about a clinical issue, such as which drug should be added to a national or state drug formulary; policy about a public/population health issue, such as mandating a new vaccine for toddlers; or policy about a health-system issue, such as whether nurses and pharmacists should be allowed to prescribe.

“The answer has important implications for the context in which you will be working,” he said.

“For example policies in the clinical space are heavily routinised, if you are in population and public health it gets complicated and you might have to deal with multiple ministers; and in the health system space one moment ministers might be making a decision about scope of practice, the next minute they might be considering how to pay physicians differently – it is hugely diverse.”

A definition for evidence-informed policy making

Professor Lavis said researchers should ask themselves whether their work would assist policy makers in clarifying problems, framing options or identifying implementation considerations.

They should then consider what evidence-informed policy might look like, and he suggested the following definition: using the best available data and research evidence – systematically and transparently – in the time available alongside the institutional constraints, interest-group pressure, values and other types of information that influence the policy process.

“That’s what I am aiming for – the question for you is, can you live with that definition?” he said.

“The reality is we don’t know a lot about the evidence to support evidence-based policy making. The CIPHER trial is one of the most rigorous efforts to date to measure the effectiveness of an intervention [in this area].”

Time – and relationships – are of the essence

But two areas had emerged with some consistency in the research literature about the factors that increased the prospects for research use in policy making:

  • Interactions between researchers and policy makers; and
  • Timing/timeliness where well packaged, high-quality and high-relevance systematic reviews, were more easily available.

He said researchers should consider whether they had the time, resources and skills to put their research into the context of a systematic review, evidence brief, and deliberative dialogue. If not, they could consider groups which could help them do that.

Experience in Canada had shown that governments were open to the need for rigour around broader health policy making.

“We don’t accept personal opinion in the clinical guideline world and governments are starting to recognise that we need the same rigour around policy making as exists in the clinical world,” he said.


Find out more

  • Read our Day 1 conference wrap and other reports in our dedicated conference coverage
  • Learn about CIPHER, the Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research
  • Watch a video from keynote conference speaker and Kings Fund CEO Professor Chris Ham on the UK approach to integrated care
  • View the presentations from the NHMRC Research Translation Symposium