Health services contract research occupies a unique position in the health policy ecosystem and specifically within the Academy Health research community. Conceptually, contract research sits at the center of the health policy continuum, between the public sector and academia. The public sector (e.g., federal, state, local governments) articulate policy, for example, in the form of provider requirements, service delivery guidelines or payment models and systems. Advocacy organizations promote specific policy proposals and modifications to existing policies to these public sectors entities. On the other end of the continuum, academic institutions independently research topics of interest and import and their results may inform policy direction and build the evidence base for new policy. At the intersection of academia and policymaking are contract researchers who provide direct and applied support to policy development and implementation, through research, evaluation, regulatory/rule-making support, and technical assistance. Often contract research organizations partner with one another, as well as with health care providers and systems, and/or academic consultants, to bring a blend of relevant expertise. The field of contract research represents the best of both worlds – directly impacting current and future policy through high-quality research and implementation support.
Public sector entities, such as federal and state governments, often contract with research organizations to help design, implement, and evaluate health-related policies and programs. These contracts typically originate with a request for proposals (RFPs) in response to specific research questions and objectives, frequently related to pressing health policy issues and challenges, including opioid use disorder, maternal health disparities, prescription drug costs, nursing home care quality, and more – which are at the core of the health care delivery system. Depending on their nature, these projects may be staffed by health service researchers, health economists, clinicians, epidemiologists, statisticians, programmers, policy analysts, public health professionals and other social scientists – or all the above. Each year, hundreds of these contract research staff attend the Annual Research Meeting, to learn about emerging research and policy and present on their work, including the examples described below.
There are many real-world examples of the direct impact of the contract research community on our national health care delivery system. For example, based on robust evaluation findings, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently decided to scale nationwide its Home Health Value Based Purchasing model, which links a portion of home health agencies’ payments to their performance on a suite of quality measures. This model was refined and implemented by a contract research firm, evaluated by another, while a third team of contract researcher organizations provided technical assistance to participating providers.
Another example is that the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality partners with a contract research organization to implement the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP), which brings together the data collection efforts of state data organizations, hospital associations, private data organizations, and the federal government to create encounter-level health care data to support research on a broad range of health policy issues, including cost and quality of health services, medical practice patterns, access to health care programs, and treatment outcomes. Many state Medicaid initiatives, which can be testing grounds for national health policy, are supported and evaluated by contract research firms, such as special waivers testing health care delivery reforms to improve behavioral health care and to address health-related social needs.
Interested in learning more? There will be two opportunities to do so at the upcoming Annual Research Meeting this June in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, June 5. Attend a Contract Research Networking Breakfast and connect with researchers working in the field. There will also be a Contract Research Job Fair from 5 to 6:30 pm, where more than a dozen contract research firms will have representatives on hand to discuss current job openings and answer questions about career opportunities and their experience. We hope to see you there!