Joining the current discussion on communication health research (apologies for my late entry!), here are five quick thoughts on what effective communication of health research to policymakers entails and how it can be measured (Q1).
(Please note: below thoughts reflect my own views and experience. They are meant as inputs for discussion and revision.)
1) Effective communication of health research implies a measurable change in policy or practice.
When discussing communication strategies with researchers, policy makers, or programme implementers, I often find there is no common understanding of what exactly we are looking to achieve and with whom. Yet, a shared vision of change and tangible objectives are fundamental to any successful communication strategy, and should precede summarizing evidence, selecting dissemination tools, and crafting messages. Communication is as effective as the change it is trying to facilitate, and said change rarely unfolds in a linear way (see below).
2) To be effective AND efficient, communicating health research best aims at policy AND at practice.
Whether a piece of evidence points at the misuse of a potentially live saving drug, an innovative vaccination strategy, or the power of community engagement: the first and obvious take is usually to try and “inform” policy in a very traditional sense, for instance, a change in legislation, guidelines, or standard procedures. This builds on an all too simplistic perception of (top-down) power! In practice (pun intended!), most policies are only as good as their practical implementation. That’s why efficient communication of health research ideally aims at both the political decision-makers and those that implement said policy: doctors and healthcare workers, patients and people with lived experience, civil society and non-state actors, among others.
3) Measuring effective communication consequently should look at communication outcomes rather than outputs.
Neither the number nor the format of communication products determine communication success. An informal pitch to a decision-maker may have greater effect than a widely disseminated policy brief, and not every report merits a full-fledged social media strategy. Measuring communication must go beyond outputs (the communication products) and beyond activities (sharing/dissemination). A good communication strategy comes with a built-in outcome mapping, which allows both to get everyone on the same page on what impact may look like, and to monitor progress regularly.
4) Even with the best of strategies, effective communication also remains a game of opportunity, network, and politics.
Effective communication only gains traction when messages reach and resonate in the right networks, and when there is room and time for change. It’s able to recognize windows of opportunity (a sudden interest in a topic from a high-level politician, an invite to publish an op-ed in a magazine, a retweet from a major multilateral agency, etc.), and it builds on formats and communication products that can quickly be adapted, combined and recycled (combining an evidence brief with a patient interview, or using parts of a training video for public health campaign, etc.)
5) Effective communication of health research must remain true to the evidence.
Health research is often complex and highly technical. The very limited time and attention of decision-makers as much as the short formats of public communication formats often call for drastic synthesis of research results and for more actionable recommendations. Communication professionals have much to offer in this translational process, but they also run the risk of oversimplifying or misinterpreting the original evidence. Effective ccommunication of health research, however, can only be simplified to the point it remains true to the actual evidence. It should neither exaggerate, distort, unnecessarily dramatize nor accuse (unless there is irrefutable evidence to do so). Evidence-to-communication translation should therefore be a collaborative process of conceptualizing and editing between evidence producers, brokers, and decision-makers (i.e., researchers, communicators, and policy-makers).
Samuel Sieber PhD
Knowledge Translation & Communciation Specialist
HIFA profile: Samuel Sieber is a Knowledge Translation and Communication Specialist, Global Coordination Mechanism on NCDs, Global NCD Platform, Deputy Director General's Office, WHO, Geneva, Switzerland. He is a member of the HIFA working group on Communicating health research. https://www.hifa.org/support/members/samuel siebers AT who.int