Just what happens to research findings – how are people kept informed?
The Action for Health Project was a large research project that included many aspects of health care and technology including things such as the way people seek and use health information, how technology impacts people and settings, and how communities are affected by the implementation of an electronic patient record system—to name but a few.
There are a number of things Dr. Ellen Balka, the principle investigator of the project attempted to do once individual projects were finished and findings established. All researchers attempt to disseminate their findings in a number of ways. One is to try to reach a wide audience such as this column series. But the gold standard for research dissemination is publication in a scholarly publication and of course this was done whenever possible.
The reason that this avenue of publication is so important is because it is subject to peer review. This means that other experts in the field read and approve the findings before they are published, something that adds to the strength and credibility of the findings by placing them under the scrutiny of experts. Usually these experts in the field make suggestions and comments that must then be incorporated into the final document so that the published article is credible and valid. This is an important way in which our understanding of research outcomes—in this case the impact of technology on the health care system including professionals and lay users—is advanced.
However there are other ways in which research findings are communicated. An important component is presentations at conferences and meetings. These are numerous, varied and often international with key players in a certain discipline coming together to present the results of research in a common field (although things are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary). Experts present their findings in short presentations followed by discussion so that interested audience members can ask questions and follow up on key areas. At these conferences the opportunity to meet and talk to other researchers is invaluable, and many ideas and concepts have originated in these informal types of hallway interactions. Conference proceedings are often published so that a permanent record is made available and people can find out what was said and who said it, but there is still something to be said for face to face meetings.
Research findings also find their way into practice guidelines. These are designed to help those working in the field (for example nurses, doctors and other health care professionals) make better decisions, or perhaps improve their diagnostic abilities or manage their treatment o fpatients in a more expert manner. The Action for Health project explored areas of health information seeking as was mentioned, but also did so in the context of rural women’s needs, those with HIV and AIDS, as well as specific concerns of young people. Hopefully, these findings would then benefit those people who are involved with these target groups and situations. Everyone is always striving towards better and more effective health care.
Specific practice guidelines were developed by research associate Corlann Bush who developed clear and concise good practice guides. For example, one of these guides dealt with what made for an effective health care website and was based on findings from others in the project. This is yet another example of research dissemination in which results from numerous projects become synthesized into one overall practice guide.
One other important way that research becomes situated in the real world is through the development of policy. These are plans that help people make decisions, whether it be government, users, manufacturers—in fact almost everyone. Any organization will have and use policies, and health care is no exception. Policies are based on evidence, and evidence comes from research. There always has to be a rationale in order for everyone to accept what it is they have to do. Policies are not the law of the land but do form a framework on which to conduct daily activities.
An emerging issue related to all of this is the new field of knowledge translation. There is always a difference between what is known through the research process, sometimes also referred to as research evidence, and what is done in the real world. The process by which research findings reach their way into actual behavioural change in terms of how people do things or understand them is a fascinating trajectory and one that is being examined more closely all the time. The fact that we know something to be true based on clinical knowledge does not always change health outcomes. Gaps remain.
In the real world, research findings would quickly and efficiently find their way into improved health care outcomes so that you and I could benefit. Of course the real world is not like that. Nevertheless, all researchers take it upon themselves to move knowledge forward, even if it’s in smaller steps than they would like.
What is continuing medical education (CME)?
One way in which health care professionals can benefit from research findings is by participating in continuing medical education or professional development. In a rapidly changing world, keeping up is not only good practice, but increasingly required in order to maintain licensure. Increasingly this does not involve visiting a classroom but rather involves going online. Just as in formal educational institutions such as colleges and universities, CME uses credits. These may also be obtained from participation in conferences such as those discussed above.