The Role of Evidence in Health Policymaking

The world of health policy is one that is fascinating, but complex. For students, understanding health policy can be a rather overwhelming task, since there are countless and multifaceted issues occurring both nationally and globally. However, in order to have a firm, holistic grasp on healthcare issues, we need to be able to critically assess the policies that shape the environment around us. It is also important to remember that understanding health policy is not a skill solely reserved for people who find it academically relevant. Rather, it is something that we should all strive to understand as we try to become better-informed thinkers, doers and citizens.  So where do we start? Where can we access accurate, well-researched evidence to better develop our understanding? More so, how can we use this evidence to tackle policymaking?

To help answer these questions, I was one of the 30 McMaster students who had the opportunity to attend ‘Strengthening Health Care Systems in Canada and Low- and Middle-Income Countries – A Workshop on Evidence-informed Policy’, organized by the McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee. This workshop was facilitated by Dr. John Lavis, director of the McMaster Health Forum and co-director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre on Evidence-informed Policy, and Jamie Ardilla and Maria Bargeman, two health policy PhD candidates under Dr. Lavis’ supervision.

To begin the workshop, participants gathered in the Forum’s DialogueSpace to watch three video modules designed to give us a foundation in understanding evidence-informed policymaking in health systems. In summary, we learned how to define and clarify a problem, frame an issue, and seek relevant online resources to search for research evidence. After watching the video modules, Dr. Lavis walked us through how to use this newly-acquired information to draft our own evidence-informed policy. Working with a partner, we decided on a health policy issue of our choice, and went through the steps outlined by the modules to develop our ideas.

Dr. Lavis and the workshop co-facilitators taught us that in order to understand the condition of an issue, we need to know why it is happening and why we are interested in tackling the problem in the first place. When we frame our issue correctly, and diagnose the level at which this problem exists, we can explore possible relevant interventions to be implemented in the future.  Furthermore, each participant was given a copy of the Finding and Using Research Evidence summary sheet, that listed helpful online evidence databases  organized based on what type of health policy issues were addressed and at what level they existed. During the workshop it was stressed that in order to maximize our research results we need to categorize our thoughts properly. I know that this summary sheet will be a very valuable resource to me as I work to further my knowledge on evidence-informed policymaking.

All in all I found the workshop to be very informative as it allowed me to learn the basics of evidence-informed policymaking. Furthermore, I learned that it was vital to organize my thoughts and that every piece of information needs to be considered when I frame the issue at hand.  This workshop also reinforced the fact that there is always more than what is evident at the surface to a health policy issue  — no problem is easy to solve or reduce. There is always a lot more to know and many perspectives to think about! Lastly, I realized that these databases can lead you to great evidence, but more than that, they can show you where more research needs to be done.

Participants applying principles of evidence-informed policymaking to hands-on examples in groups.
Participants work in small groups to apply principles of evidence-informed policymaking.

By Yara Farran, General Member 2013-2014, McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee

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