The common perception is that once health research finds a better way of doing something, that better way is adopted. The reality is much more complicated, especially in low-income countries.
Researchers at universities and organizations often fail to put their research outputs into formats that can be easily distilled by busy policymakers. Due to time constraints and often competing interests, those conducting research and those making health decisions fail to effectively communicate and share knowledge with each other, explains Felix Limbani, Dignitas International’s Knowledge Translation Coordinator.
The result, according to Limbani, is that “many of the health policy decisions we make here in Malawi are not informed by research evidence.” The chasm between researchers and those who set health care policy means that life-saving solutions aren’t implemented as quickly as they should be.
Dignitas International is working to bridge the gap with a Knowledge Translation Platform (KTP), a centrally coordinated forum that allows routine dialogue between government officials and researchers and provides training to both parties to ensure evidence translates into sound health care decisions.
The KTP ensures that important decisions – such as which drug regimens should be prescribed or when testing for various conditions should be initiated – are based on the best available evidence. The new platform will also encourage health organizations and academic institutions to pursue research questions that reflect local concerns.
Dr. James Mpunga, TB Programme Manager at the Ministry of Health (MoH), says before the KTP, research was too often catered to ideal health care settings.
“We have a real problem with staffing in hospitals, and the researcher might not know that the recommendation they’re making cannot be implemented because we don’t have enough health workers to do the job,” he says.
After conducting interviews with researchers and policymakers to gain a deeper understanding of the current challenges in research translation, Dignitas held a two-day training and brainstorming session for both policymakers and researchers earlier this summer. Policymakers reviewed how to utilize systematic reviews, summarize research findings and evaluate policy briefs from researchers. Participants also discussed the mission and future plans for the KTP.
“The session taught us how important it is for researchers and those of us in government to work together, from deciding on research topics and writing research proposals to developing research protocol and even implementing research,” says Dr. Mpunga.
In keeping with Dignitas’s commitment to sustainability, Dignitas has partnered with the Malawi government in forming the KTP. In the future, the KTP will be managed by the Ministry of Health and will be able to operate without external support.
“Dignitas staff members have evinced the humility and professionalism that allows them to collaborate with local MoH officials and other institutions such as the University of Malawi,” explains Dr. Damson Kathyola, Director of Research, Policy and Planning at the Ministry of Health.
As the KTP moves forward, routine discussion forums will take place involving government officials and researchers. These forums will bring together specialized researchers and policymakers – those focused on Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV for example – to facilitate rapid response decision-making. In addition, a KTP website will enable the sharing of the latest and most relevant studies and will facilitate a network for cross-collaboration.
According to Limbani, the Ministry of Health officials involved in the first KTP training session were excited about its potential. “They really fell in love with the possibility of developing a research database as well as finding and utilizing systematic reviews,” he says.
It is not surprising that health officials are excited about the new information available to them. After all, Limbani points out, “Evidence from the available research can show us a great deal on how to make health care delivery more effective across the nation.”
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