As part of the Public Health Law Research program’s participation in National Public Health Week 2015, we have been sharing materials and resources under the daily themes. Today’s theme, Building Broader Connections, is about expanding partnerships and making connections to benefit public health.
We spoke with Laura Hitchcock, JD, Policy Research & Development Specialist for Public Health – Seattle & King County and the King County Executive/Department of Executive Services Partnerships Initiative Lead. We asked her to offer some insight from her work as a lawyer and researcher in a public health department.
PHLR: What role can researchers play in building partnerships with health departments and contributing to the policy-making discussion?
LH: Public health researchers can help to support development and refinement of evidence-based policies. Because policies are created in a political process, it is important for public health departments to continue to offer their scientific knowledge to support creation of effective policies, including repeal of ineffective policies or refinement of existing policies to better result in a healthy population by 2030. Health departments may need help to define local or state-focused areas for policy evaluation by working together with researchers, and should contribute to development of research agendas by identifying areas where policy makers, communities, medical professionals and others have concerns about the public’s health, and are likely to need support from researchers to know how to ‘plug in’ to research agenda development.
Researchers can also provide useful and credible information about the development and impacts of policy, by sharing results from other geographic areas, or supporting development of a policy agenda by providing data and evidence about the need for a policy. Policymakers often desire this type of information, and need credible third-party sources to help them make difficult decisions. Relationships between health departments and researchers can assure that researchers are known and available when these types of decisions are being made.
By aligning research agendas and interests with the practical work of local and state government health departments, research will have a ‘real-time’ impact, either on understanding the efficacy of existing policy, the need for new policy, or areas for policy refinement.
PHLR: As a researcher and an attorney with public policy experience, what advice would you give to other researchers as they consider how to support the broader policy-making discussion?
- Be flexible and opportunistic. Be aware of the policy debates occurring in your state, where there are opportunities to conduct research on new policies in natural experiment type settings. This requires being out at meetings, participating in advisory groups, perhaps having a co-appointment with your local or state health department. While you may have a very specific area of policy research interest – is this aligned with what is going on in your community? Or, alternatively, do you think that there should be more research in your area of expertise, and can you explain to government agencies why they may care about this? Taking a community-based participatory research approach can help ensure relevance and data-to-action opportunities.
- Identify and utilize contemporary methods of dissemination. Educate yourself on how to re-disseminate findings from published research, or publish preliminary findings to pique the interest of the policy community. Understand the use of newer social media, but above all, monitor media sites and respond to opportunities to share your research findings with the public and policy-makers as they engage in debate. Blog posts and infographics are critical if you would like media, policy makers or others to share your research regularly.
- Identify new areas based on new collaborations. For example, spawned by the Affordable Care Act, newer collaborations of groups such as hospitals and public health departments, may be interested in your research to support development of community health needs assessments and community health improvement plans. Reaching out and engaging with these partners can make you a valuable player when policy discussions occur.
- Research findings can lead a call to policy development. Offering to present your research in public policy forums, such as state legislative or city council work sessions, and including potential policy recommendations or questions, can help policy makers begin to frame their response to an emerging issue.
PHLR: How has policy surveillance impacted your ability to bridge divides between stakeholders and facilitate greater collaboration?
LH: King County is a metropolitan area with large disparities between zip codes, where life expectancy can vary as much as 10 years. We are beginning to be able to work with our policy datasets to show variation in policy at the city and school district level; our next step is to compare different aspects of these polices (specific policy language/elements) to specific health outcomes by these local jurisdictions/organizations. We hope to share these policy results with policy makers interested in achieve a more equitable community for all. (Note: The Seattle-King County LawAtlas datasets can be found here, here and here)
PHLR: Considering the overall theme of National Public Health Week, Healthiest Nation 2030, what can we do better as researchers and policy-makers to reach that goal?
LH: We need to do a much better job of experimenting with and evaluating policy approaches related to obesity / overweight prevention. There is a lot of focus on evaluation of programmatic interventions – but we need to understand better the impacts of system-wide or jurisdiction-wide interventions if we are to truly turn the curve by 2030. We also need a better understanding of effective policy interventions in the violence and injury prevention area.
How has your institution been making connections and collaborating to benefit public health and translate evidence into action? Share in the comment!