Every June, AcademyHealth’s Annual Research Meeting provides the opportunity for researchers, policymakers, health system leaders and others to learn about the latest research, exchange ideas and strengthen professional connections. Each year I am particularly attuned to comments from speakers and fellow attendees about research translation and dissemination, the focus of my work at AcademyHealth. This year I was especially struck by the pervasiveness of this theme in breakout sessions and plenary remarks that reminded us why it’s critically important to get our work into the hands of decision makers, how to do this effectively, and how to gauge the impact of our efforts.

Health policy in 2017: An open window for evidence

The 2017 ARM came at a critical time in U.S. health care policy, just days after Senate leadership introduced the Better Care Reconciliation Act and two months after the House of Representatives passed a health care reform bill of its own. For me, it was an important reminder of just how crucial it is for the health services research (HSR) and policy communities to have a voice in ongoing health care debates – whether the topic is national health care reform or myriad other issues affecting the health of individuals and communities across the country.

This year’s conference underscored just how much the field has to contribute. Multiple sessions featured research examining the impact of the Affordable Care Act as well as the potential effects of proposals to repeal or replace the law. We also heard new research relevant to the opioid crisis, innovations in payment and service delivery, prescription drug costs, and persistent disparities in health and health care. Several of these issues garnered national attention in the past year and remain top-of-mind for leaders in health policy and health care delivery, creating opportunities to elevate HSR as a resource for decision makers.

However, the opening of these policy windows – famously described by John Kingdon – doesn’t mean much if we can’t communicate the meaning and importance of our work in terms that resonate with the audiences we’re trying to reach. And in an era of “fake news,” there are plenty of other voices willing to step into the fray that may or may not be grounded in evidence. During Monday’s luncheon plenary, Darrell Gaskin, Ph.D., chair of AcademyHealth’s Board of Directors, encouraged conference attendees to counter the current VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment with HOPE (honesty, opportunity, professionalism and evidence). He also cautioned that the research community risks being left out of the conversation if the public becomes accustomed to receiving fake or inaccurate information.

Seizing the opportunity

Fortunately, this year’s conference also offered practical insights on how we as individuals and as a community can translate and disseminate our work more effectively, and in doing so, help strengthen the voice of evidence in ongoing debates. In one session, three speakers shared their translation experiences through “TaC Talks,” a riff on TED Talks pioneered by AcademyHealth’s Translation and Communications Interest Group. These speakers used personal narrative, humor and engaging visuals to tell compelling stories about the work they do, why it’s important, and lessons learned in getting that work to target audiences.

The Translation and Communications Interest Group has long been a leader in AcademyHealth’s efforts to explore a diverse set of issues around research translation and dissemination. Their annual meeting, held a day prior to ARM along with 17 other Interest Groups, included discussion about the language we use to describe research translation and related activities (e.g. communication, translation, dissemination, implementation, etc.) and why distinctions among these terms matter.

The meeting also explored tools for communicating research findings effectively, including social media, a platform that makes many researchers nervous. Panelists who spoke on this topic noted that working with a trusted intermediary, such as a university-based department or institute with its own blog or Twitter handle, is one way for researchers to ease into the social media space. Panelists also noted that social media is more than just a tool for pushing information out, but rather a collaborative platform that enables dialogue and community-building.

Defining and measuring impact

Even when research addresses a timely issue and is communicated in novel ways, it can be incredibly difficult to pinpoint whether and how a research study impacted society at-large – for example, by informing policy decisions or prompting practice change. “Return on investment” is a phrase that makes some in the research community uncomfortable, but it’s a very real and important consideration for the public and private entities that support the field’s work. In fact, multiple speakers in the ARM opening plenary alluded to this point in reflecting on the role of evidence in health policy moving forward.  

A conference session I moderated explored this topic further with representatives of four health services research funders in the U.S. and Canada. Panelists described their organizations’ goals and desired impact, the types of impact metrics they find most useful, and the persistent challenges that can make impact tracking difficult for funders and grantees alike. Among the takeaways: Given that policy decisions are rarely the result of a single study, different funders of HSR and their grantees should work more collaboratively to articulate how bodies of evidence are helping to inform decision-making, strengthen health systems and improve health.

In closing, this year’s conference – and the current health policy environment – challenge us to keep up the important work of creating and communicating evidence to inform the health decision makers of today and tomorrow. This is difficult work, but as I reflect on the HSR community – a group of people who enthusiastically tackle some of the toughest questions in health care – I’m confident in the field’s ability to continue to rise to the occasion.

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