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Dr. Susan Allan Speaks on Practice-Based Public Health Research

NWCPHP’s director, Susan Allan, MD, JD, MPH, spoke on practice-based public health research at three national events for public health practitioners.

July 30, 2010

This month, NWCPHP’s director, Susan Allan, MD, JD, MPH, spoke on practice-based public health research at three national events for public health practitioners. She will also present on this topic in September at the upcoming Association of State and Territorial Health Officials Sixth Annual Meeting of the Directors of Public Health Preparedness.

Recently, Dr. Allan was able to share her thoughts on practice-based public health research.

Why do you think there is so much interest at present in practice-based public health research?

I think that public health practitioners want to communicate the value of what they do to a broad audience. They also want to make evidence-based decisions when trying to maximize benefit from limited resources. I also think that the emergence of national public health accreditation standards has increased the attention of public health practitioners to measuring what they do.

It helps that there is some money for doing this kind of research. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s portfolio of public health systems and services research is becoming broader and deeper—and more visible. The CDC’s investment in the Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center (PERRC) program is significant. PERRC funding is specifically for preparedness, but in many cases, we are able to investigate questions that have much broader implications.

What do you see as your role in the national conversation about practice-based public health research?

What I offer is that I am able to talk about research in a practice context. I do not consider myself an expert researcher. Rather, I am a translator who can use examples and experiences that make sense to practice audiences. I appreciate the opportunity to be a visible advocate for practice-based public health research as I think this research is critical to effective public health.

What are some of the challenges of conducting practice-based public health research?

There are quite a number of challenges. For practitioners, their traditional activities and roles have not generally included research, and their governing boards might not support or understand their involvement in research. Practitioners often need to acquire new skills and almost always must fight to find time in their already-overwhelmed schedules. All this for an activity that will yield results only in the future.

On the research side, researchers often don’t “speak practice” and need to learn a new language. Researchers may also be taking a risk as it isn’t yet clear how an academic can build a career in this field. At this point, it is a small field with limited funding opportunities. For some academics, practice-based public health systems research does not have equivalent parity and prestige to other research areas.

Another challenge is that practice-based public health systems research draws from a lot of different research methods. Other research areas have much tighter portfolios of research techniques. There are certainly opportunities in using a broad range of qualitative and quantitative methods, but it is harder to approach practice-based public health systems research in a coherent way.

We need to continue anyway. The lack of evidence for most typical or traditional public health practices is so extreme that any improvement in evidence is an advance for the field. It matters to communities that we have better tools for protecting their health.

What do you think the field of practice-based public health research will be like in ten years?

I look forward to a strong system that links researchers to practitioners, both sides believing that this is a valuable part of their work. I look forward to having a body of knowledge to build on.  I hope that those involved in federal and national investments in health start to see that more funding should be going into public health and prevention activities. To help bring about this funding shift, I hope that in the future, public health will increase its political visibility in linking its research activities and services to health.

I think it is also fair to say that we need to change training for both researchers and for practitioners so that early in their careers they meet each other and develop a sense of opportunity and responsibility for this research. The practitioners who are now involved in research tend to be in the latter part of their career. It would be exciting to see people involved early in their career.

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