Health Systems Evidence: “It’s like a fancy google for people who make big decisions.”

The way I see it, the McMaster Health Forum has just taken a big step towards achieving one of its central goals with the re-launch of the expanded and improved Health Systems Evidence database. The official Forum mission statement reads: Our Mission is to harness the best available evidence, convene concerned citizens and influential thinkers and doers, and prepare action-oriented leaders to meet pressing health challenges creatively.

As a health sciences student, the reason I chose to become involved with the Forum was based on a firm belief that policy decisions must be evidence-informed, at a local level and internationally. Now, I truly thought that in a developed country, our leaders would appreciate this fundamental value and policies would remain evidence-informed. There are countless examples that demonstrate that this is not the case. Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to sell Plan B, an emergency contraceptive, without prescriptions to teenagers under 17. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement: “There is adequate and reasonable, well-supported, and science-based evidence that Plan B One-Step is safe and effective and should be approved for non-prescription use for all females of childbearing potential.”

There is ample evidence that suggests that the drug is safe and effective and the FDA decision was overruled based on scientific, not political criteria; if this is a political issue, it should be debated as such. This may be an extreme case, where political and ethical reasoning plays a significant role in diluting the overwhelming scientific evidence in terms of policymaking, but this situation is not an exceptional occurrence. I am impressed with the work of the McMaster Health Forum as an international advocate for the importance of evidence in informing health policy decisions above all other considerations.

The Health Systems Evidence database takes the Forum’s role beyond that of an advocate and provides a practical solution in cases where up-to-date evidence is not easily accessed. Health Systems Evidence is the world’s most comprehensive, free access point for evidence on questions that policymakers, researchers and stakeholders may have about how to get cost-effective programs, services and drugs to those who need them. There are open search and advanced search functionalities in seven languages! It’s difficult to conceive that a regional minister of health in Ghana would think to continue to access evidence on family planning initiatives as he or she drafts a new policy, but with this service, it seems significantly more feasible. When the system was designed, it was destined to be used internationally. So, the interface is very user-friendly. I was most impressed by a comment in a team meeting that the design needed to be “slick but minimal”, so anyone accessing it from less than North-American or Western European high-speed internet could easily access the same up-to-date evidence.

For us, as students destined for jobs in health policy, doing theses and major research projects, Health Systems Evidence is also a remarkably valuable resource. First, it’s easy to use and free, even after you graduate from McMaster and relinquish your rights to all of our journal databases. Second, to produce high quality research in healthcare or in health policy, it is absolutely imperative that supporting evidence is as up-to-date as possible. I consider myself very lucky to be a McMaster student, to have these resources at my disposal and to be at the forefront of health policy innovation internationally. Congratulations to the McMaster Health Forum, and I encourage all of the students reading this to take the time to create an account and take a look around. This is the future of knowledge translation in health policy and will likely be a tool I personally will continue to use academically and professionally in the future.

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