Communicating health research (16) Q1. What do we mean by ˜Effective communication of health research? (4) Systematic review of communication strategies

6 September, 2022

We have noted that 'the main aim of this discussion is to identify the most impactful methods for researchers to communicate their research to policymakers. How can research be better packaged and communicated, including for example the role of policy briefs as well as academic journals, videos, social media, infographics, newsletters, use of video, and newsletter content?'

An initial thought from me is that (almost) all research should at least be available in a peer-reviewed journal, and the paper should ideally be freely accessible to all. ('Tertiary research' is an exception, as this is typically defined in terms of policy briefs and clinical guidelines. Even then, tertiary research should (almost) always be peer-reviewed, and indeed the process for WHO guidelines, for example, is more rigorous than standard peer review.)

As Chris Zielinski has said, policymakers are not likely to 'spend their Sundays reading academic biomedical journals' [ ] The question then becomes: how can the findings of a paper be made more accessible, and more useful, to policymakers? A more digestible format is the policy brief. Chris suspects policymakers are not likely to read these either. So do some of us take it for granted that policy briefs have an impact?

Two members of our HIFA Communicating health research group - Rob Terry (TDR/WHO) and Tanja Kuchenmuller (Evidence to Policy and Impact/WHO) published a paper on this subject at the end of last year:

CITATION: Assessing the impact of knowledge communication and dissemination strategies targeted at health policy-makers and managers: an overview of systematic reviews. Evelina Chapman et al. Health Research Policy and Systems volume 19, Article number: 140 (2021)

They concluded: 'There is limited evidence regarding the effectiveness of interventions targeting health managers and policy-makers, as well as the mechanisms required for achieving impact.'


Background: The use of research evidence as an input for health decision-making is a need for most health systems. There are a number of approaches for promoting evidence use at different levels of the health system, but knowledge of their effectiveness is still scarce. The objective of this overview was to evaluate the effectiveness of knowledge communication and dissemination interventions, strategies or approaches targeting policy-makers and health managers.

Methods: This overview of systematic reviews used systematic review methods and was conducted according to a predefined and published protocol. A comprehensive electronic search of 13 databases and a manual search in four websites were conducted. Both published and unpublished reviews in English, Spanish or Portuguese were included. A narrative synthesis was undertaken, and effectiveness statements were developed, informed by the evidence identified.

Results: We included 27 systematic reviews. Three studies included only a communication strategy, while eight only included dissemination strategies, and the remaining 16 included both. None of the selected reviews provided “sufficient evidence” for any of the strategies, while four provided some evidence for three communication and four dissemination strategies. Regarding communication strategies, the use of tailored and targeted messages seemed to successfully lead to changes in the decision-making practices of the target audience. Regarding dissemination strategies, interventions that aimed at improving only the reach of evidence did not have an impact on its use in decisions, while interventions aimed at enhancing users’ ability to use and apply evidence had a positive effect on decision-making processes. Multifaceted dissemination strategies also demonstrated the potential for changing knowledge about evidence but not its implementation in decision-making.

Conclusions: There is limited evidence regarding the effectiveness of interventions targeting health managers and policy-makers, as well as the mechanisms required for achieving impact. More studies are needed that are informed by theoretical frameworks or specific tools and using robust methods, standardized outcome measures and clear descriptions of the interventions. We found that passive communication increased access to evidence but had no effect on uptake. Some evidence indicated that the use of targeted messages, knowledge-brokering and user training was effective in promoting evidence use by managers and policy-makers.

The paper raises lots of interesting points and questions and I invite you to comment. Email

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, Global Coordinator HIFA,

Working in official relations with WHO