Strengthening Partnerships Between Substance Use Researchers and Policy Makers

by Sarah Gutkind, MSPH

March 7, 2019

Comprehensive evidence-based policy is crucial in combatting the substance use crisis. CHERISH Investigators from the University of Pennsylvania Leonard Davis Institute Zachary Meisel, Julia Mitchell, Daniel Polsky and Janet Weiner published a new study in Substance Abuse Treatment Prevention and Policy that describes how eighteen policy makers involved in the delivery of health services engage with substance use disorder (SUD) research to inform policy.

Participants felt that framing findings in a way that addresses local needs of stakeholders would improve accessibility and facilitate application of research findings. In order to facilitate accessibility, findings should be communicated in non-technical terminology. Participants emphasized that methodological rigor was less valuable than timeliness, “especially if rigorous research led to results that emerged after [they] needed them.” Language aside, participants stressed the need for academics to get involved in the policy making process to communicate and translate research to policy. They noted that researchers are frequently hesitant or resistant to getting involved in advocacy.

Many study participants described the importance of personal and professional networks with researchers as a trusted source of information. They emphasized the need for continuity and cultivation of these relationships, some through standing contracts with universities or attending webinars. Otherwise, they rely on staff summaries of the literature or reports from government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, some considered federal reports less relevant to local needs. Participants continually highlighted the need to adapt findings to address local issues as a priority for future research.

The authors make the following recommendations for researchers to improve engagement, usability, accessibility and communication:

  1. Partner with policy makers early in the research process
  2. Formulate and use research designs to meet the strategic goals of end-users
  3. Systematically test alternative phrasing of scientific terminology – particularly in the realm of cost effectiveness research – that allow end users to better understand and repurpose the data
  4. Incorporate qualitative research methods to uncover the narratives that explain the context and relevance of evidence
  5. Incorporate study designs that prioritize timeliness of results
  6. Promote and reward researcher involvement in policy discussions.

They conclude that researchers and policy makers must work together early in the research process to address policy-relevant questions and remain engaged to leverage research findings and put forth evidence-based policy for SUD treatment financing and delivery.