Communicating health research (82) Q4. What are the needs and preferences of policymakers? (5) Informing versus persuading policymakers

26 September, 2022

Dear HIFA colleagues,

Claire Glenton has kindly forwarded me this checklist for dissemination of Cochrane systematic reviews. The accompanying guidance is quite detailed:

Some of these are perhaps applicable only to systematic reviews while others may be more widely applicable. I think each of them are worth consideration as we explore how to improve the impact of health research communication to policymakers. Here is the list and below are a few initial comments from me.

The dissemination checklist: 1-page overview

1. Have you involved your target audience or sought their feedback?

2. Have you used plain language?

3. Have you used words in your title that your target audience is likely to search for, recognize, and find relevant?

4. Have you communicated to your target audience that this product is relevant for them?

5. Have you structured the content so people can find key messages, then access more detail if they want?

6. Have you made the content easy for people to quickly scan and read?

7. Have you shown that the evidence involves real people?

8. Have you specified the populations, interventions, comparisons, and outcomes?

9. Have you stated that this information is from a systematic review?

10. Have you specified how up to date the review is?

11. Have you avoided misleading presentations and interpretations of the effects?

12. If you have used numbers to present the findings, have you used absolute numbers and labelled numbers clearly?

13. Have you described the certainty of the evidence?

14. Have you presented the findings in more than one way?

15. Where the topic or findings may be upsetting, controversial, or disappointing: have you handled this sensitively?

16. Have you made it clear (a) that the review was prepared by Cochrane and (b) who prepared the dissemination product?

17. Is it easy for people to find information about who the review authors are, how they were funded, and any conflicts of interest?

18. Have you avoided giving recommendations?


I invite discussion on any of the above, and especially on the last point:

18. Have you avoided giving recommendations?

Here, the Cochrane guidance says:

At a minimum:

- Do not give recommendations in your dissemination product.

Ideally, also:

- State explicitly that recommendations are not included.

- Think about how you can help people reach their own decisions.

The aim of a Cochrane Review is to provide the best available evidence, and then let people make their own decisions.

In the case of Cochrane reviews it is clear that 'effective research communication' is about providing information and not about recommending a particular course of action.

And yet repeatedly in the wider health literature we see both primary researchers and secondary researchers go beyond informing, towards making recommendations and even lobbying for specific policy change. If (some) systematic reviewers specifically avoid making recommendations, then why do so many primary research studies make recommendations?

In what circumstances is it appropriate for a researcher/research team to persuade policymakers to take a specific course of action, rather than to focus on providing the information that policymakers need to make their own decisions?

I am reminded of Richard Fitton's message last week, when he quoted the UN Assembly President: "We are not asking scientists to tell us what to do. We are asking scientists to show us the options"

It would be good to hear from policymakers as well as researchers on this issue. Please email to:

Best wishes, Neil

Joint Coordinator, HIFA Communicating health research

Let's build a future where every person has access to reliable healthcare information and is protected from misinformation - Join HIFA:

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health movement (Healthcare Information For All - ), a global community with more than 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. HIFA brings stakeholders together to accelerate progress towards universal access to reliable healthcare information. HIFA is administered by Global Healthcare Information Network, a UK based non-profit in official relations with the World Health Organization. Twitter: @hifa_org neil AT