What to research? A health policy perspective

Research is the real-world application of the “scientific method” which we learn in high school: after observing a problem, we come up with a scientific question, formulate a hypothesis, test it and analyze the results.

But it isn’t easy. Often, substantial resources and skills are needed to design a study, and more so to implement it.

In medicine, for instance, research involves clinical trials: patients are assigned treatment alternatives whose safety and efficacy have been established in previous studies, and their clinical effectiveness is assessed. In history, records are unearthed and accounts of various events are compared with contemporary documents. And in health policy, my field of work, it involves engaging with various health departments, interviewing patients, payers and providers; and investigating ways to improve efficiency and health outcomes for patients.

But in a country with meager resources for research, there is a need to set priorities for research, which not only optimizes the use of limited funds, but also responds to health needs.

Thus we come to this question: As far as health is concerned, what do we really need?

This is actually a difficult question to answer. A credible needs assessment requires a reliable health information system that collects data on what diseases are prevalent, what new diseases are emerging, how many people can’t pay for their healthcare, how much is healthcare, and other related questions.

I was of the notion that the rise of information technology (IT) and social media will somehow facilitate needs assessment. Yes and no.

No, because right now, individual health programs have their own ways of collecting data. My friends in the telehealth sector, a field of public health specializing in providing health services to faraway areas through IT, tell me that these programs need to talk to one another and agree on one way to collect data across all programs, to make it easier for policymakers and researchers to investigate causes that underlie health needs.

But also, yes. I know that the current difficulties in gathering information will be surmounted by just that one effort to integrate data collection and analysis. That way, we can ensure that the true health needs of the community are indeed identified accurately, and we know what indeed to research.

So, what to research? I say, it’s how we can know what’s really going on out there. The key is reliable health information.