When it comes to substance use disorder-related policies and funding, evidence is absolutely necessary though not sufficient. In a recent webinar with CHERISH Research Affiliates, Dr. Jules Netherland, Managing Director of the Drug Policy Alliance Department of Research and Academic Engagement, and Daniel Raymond, Deputy Director of Planning and Policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition, discussed the potential roles of health economics and health services researchers in harm reduction policymaking and advocacy, and opportunities and challenges for researcher engagement.
Dr. Netherland and Mr. Raymond agreed that academic engagement is critical to inform evidenced-based policy for substance use disorder. Academic researchers produce knowledge that advocates rely on when presenting their positions to policy makers, but it is important to understand how that information is used with policymakers. As Netherland explained, researchers are “experts with credentials and influential power in the halls of statehouses.”
Health economics research in particular offers the opportunity to go beyond discussing the public health benefits of a particular policy by describing the cost-effectiveness of proposed strategies for addressing substance use and promoting harm reduction. Mr. Raymond pointed out that health economics research can also address, “What targets are we setting for more funding? Who should pay for that depending on the kinds of outcomes? What is the return on investment and what is the cost of scaling up these interventions?” Answers to these questions can help advocates and policymakers make the case for increasing resources for medications for opioid use disorder and harm reduction. Health economics and health services researchers can model the impact of potential policy changes and describe the consequences and costs to society. One way to examine this question is by evaluating the “cost of doing business as usual.” Quantifying the cost of existing failed policies could lend support for policy change.
Health economics and health services researchers should engage with policy audiences – including policymakers, people with lived experience, and advocacy groups – during the study design process in order to increase the real-world impact of their research. This relationship should continue throughout the study in order to guide the research, engage with the affected communities in a meaningful way and interpret the findings. Both Netherland and Raymond stressed the importance of working with these communities in a respectful way, by valuing their time and budgeting financial support for their engagement. Otherwise, “it may feel tokenizing to ask people to lend their time and their name for the veneer of community engagement without meaningful involvement in the research design or questions.”
Both Netherland and Raymond recognize that there are challenges to engaging with advocacy groups and policymakers, such as policy outpacing the research, the relatively narrow scope of research, and translating findings for dissemination. Policy needs outpace grant deadlines and manuscripts, and both Netherland and Raymond explained that the key is to engage with policymakers in a timely manner. They often receive requests for information within days and hours. To respond, academic researchers should rely on the body of literature write large and speak as experts in the field when responding to policymakers or the media, rather than relying solely on their own individual research. It is also valuable to go beyond any single study by grounding the issue in history, discussing the thought process behind the research, and weaving real life stories to make the findings more personal. When disseminating findings of a specific study, it is critical to keep the audience in mind and translate the research into plain language. This can be done through concept sheets, twitter threads, blogs, and visual abstracts.