Published: 14 July 2021
Trudie Lang, Professor of Global Health Research at the University of Oxford and Head of the Global Health Network and Senior Research Scientist in Tropical Medicine at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, reflects on the challenges of translating research into standard practice.
Why should discoveries in health research take ten years to become reality? Throughout my career working with colleagues across the world, I have seen that too little research takes place, if at all, in low-resource settings in low and middle income countries (LMICs).
Even more concerning, once a discovery has been made, for example a medical intervention, there is not always a clear path to translating that into practice and policy. It is a huge loss when research results (which can take years to produce in the first place) do not translate into real world benefits that save lives quickly enough.
Typically, a research team gets its findings published in a journal, and too often that is the end of the journey. We want to work with researchers, health workers and policy makers to find new ways to turn those results into practical outcomes that benefit communities in LMICs. This mission is closely aligned with that of the NIHR’s global health portfolio, building on the success of work in LMICs and high-income settings such as the UK.
The steps required to translate research into policy and practice are well illustrated by Dr Ambrose Agweyu in his lecture, ‘A round trip journey developing guidelines for the management of severe pneumonia in Kenyan children.’ We see through this case study the whole research cycle of several years, from study results and recommendations that inform policies and practices to how these in turn inform research questions that need to be addressed. In his closing remarks Dr Agewyu concludes that “there is a need for pragmatic trials in Africa to generate evidence to inform policy in the region”. We know this is the case across regions and disease areas.
Bridging the gap between researchers, policy makers and implementers
In many cases, there is a gap between researchers, those who make policies and decisions, and those who implement work on the ground. Recognition for the research team comes when the study data is published in a medical journal. Less attention is paid to how, and indeed if, those findings are made visible and accessible to key stakeholders who influence decision-making including policy makers, journalists, organisations, patients and carers. We need to bridge this gap if we want research to deliver its maximum impact and positively change health outcomes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed this problem on a global scale, and highlighted how we can do better in all areas of health research and every step of the research cycle.
Examples of recent innovations that seem to be effective include: collaborations across several study sites to test already safe and approved drugs to treat severe Covid-19 hospitalised patients; journalists having an open platform with scientists to understand and translate critical research to the wider public; and policy makers asking data scientists to risk assess public health interventions and, of course, to develop Covid-19 vaccines.
What if we could look for life-saving treatments and interventions and roll them out with the same rigour, speed and cooperative spirit we’ve seen during this pandemic? Can we better connect research results with care-givers by producing clear recommendations that can be taken up into practice?
A new online Knowledge Hub to share findings and bolster the research uptake in LMICs
At The Global Health Network, our vision is to provide a free, open and online space to foster a community of practice for researchers, policymakers and development partners. Over the past year, with support and input from Wellcome and the UK Department for Health and Social Care, we’ve mapped our policy stakeholders at global and regional levels.
Through workshops and surveys with our partners across Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, we are working towards understanding how all the groups involved define research uptake, what they think are the challenges and who else should we involve.
Ultimately, we want to understand the research uptake landscape, the barriers and opportunities, so we can develop and deliver the tools, resources and training needed to support the researchers, policymakers and development partners in this work, and affect positive change in the health of populations, especially in low-resource settings.
This is how ARCH – Applying Research into Policy and Practice for Health took off. If you’re involved in research, public health, policy, media, communications, engagement or health, we welcome you to join this new open-access digital knowledge hub to be part of, shape and benefit from this ambitious global effort.
Trudie Lang is Professor of Global Health Research at the University of Oxford; Head of the Global Health Network and Senior Research Scientist in Tropical Medicine, Nuffield Department of Medicine. She has over 20 years’ experience in running clinical trials, including trials in low and middle income countries, for the pharmaceutical industry, WHO and in academia.
The Global Health Network is a global open community of practice for health workers, research teams and research organisations. It facilitates, supports and enables research in diseases, places and settings where evidence is lacking, by sharing research methods, know-how and data.