Is Knowledge Translation In Health Too Important to Leave to Health Professionals?


Knowledge translation — and its affiliated terms knowledge exchange, knowledge integration and knowledge mobilization — was coined to describe a process of taking what is known into what is done in health across the spectrum of science, practice, policy and  the public’s health. As health issues become more complex due to the intertwining of demographics, technology, science, and cultural transformations the need to better understand evidence and its impact on health has never been higher. Questions remain: has demand met supply? How are the health professions dealing with this equation?

Translating knowledge

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), one of the earliest champions of the concept of knowledge translation in research, define it as:

a dynamic and iterative process that includes synthesisdisseminationexchange and ethically-sound application of knowledge to improve the health of Canadians (sic), provide more effective health services and products and strengthen the health care system.

These ideas are expanded below:

Synthesis – Synthesis, in this context, means the contextualization and integration of research findings of individual research studies within the larger body of knowledge on the topic. A synthesis must be reproducible and transparent in its methods, using quantitative and/or qualitative methods. It could take the form of a systematic review, follow the methods developed by the Cochrane Collaboration, result from a consensus conference or expert panel or synthesize qualitative or quantitative results. Realist syntheses, narrative syntheses, meta-analyses, meta-syntheses and practice guidelines are all forms of synthesis. Resources related to synthesis are available.

Dissemination – Dissemination involves identifying the appropriate audience and tailoring the message and medium to the audience. Dissemination activities can include such things as summaries for / briefings to stakeholders, educational sessions with patients, practitioners and/or policy makers, engaging knowledge users in developing and executing dissemination/implementation plan, tools creation, and media engagement.

Exchange – The exchange of knowledge refers to the interaction between the knowledge user and the researcher, resulting in mutual learning. According to the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation (CHSRF), the definition of knowledge exchange is “collaborative problem-solving between researchers and decision makers that happens through linkage and exchange. Effective knowledge exchange involves interaction between knowledge users and researchers and results in mutual learning through the process of planning, producing, disseminating, and applying existing or new research in decision-making.”

Ethically-sound application of knowledge – Ethically-sound KT activities for improved health are those that are consistent with ethical principles and norms, social values, as well as legal and other regulatory frameworks – while keeping in mind that principles, values and laws can compete among and between each other at any given point in time. The term application is used to refer to the iterative process by which knowledge is put into practice.

In short, knowledge translation is about taking what we learn and know from evidence, sharing that knowledge with others and assisting them to make useful health choices in practice and policy through KT.

This often involves communicating across contexts, disciplines, and roles between and from scientists, clinicians, policy makers and to the public alike. In a health environment that is increasingly becoming complex, the ability to communicate across boundaries is no longer an advantage, it’s an essential skill. While we may not always have the right language, we can translate meaning through stories.

But if stories are to be effective they need to be valued.

The value of storytelling

I’ve seen health professionals — scientists and clinicians — roll their eyes when you mention storytelling in a work context. It is as if the only legitimate role for stories is to communicate with children (which University of Alberta researchers are exploring as a tool for sharing health knowledge with parents). Yet, it is through stories that most people share what they know in every other context; why would it be different in health?

Perhaps it is the connotation that stories are ‘made up’ like children’s bedtime tales, but one need only look to journalism to find that we’ve been making ‘stories’ a central part of our life every day. We listen to drive-time radio for stories about the traffic conditions, we watch, download and listen to news stories filed by professional journalists and citizen bloggers alike on mainstream media, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook along with myriad sources across the web. Last week we were glued to various sources to learn storiessome of them false — and create stories about the events of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Stories are what conveys multiple information threads and puts it in a coherent context.

Stories are coherence engines.

Valuing knowledge translation

If knowledge translation is important then it should be reflected in research priorities and evidence for its impact on the system across different disciplines. Dr Shannon Scott and her U of A team recently conducted a systematic review of knowledge translation strategies in the allied health professions and found that the field was full of low quality studies that made it impossible to make firm statements on which methods were best among them . That team has recently proposed a systematic review looking at how the arts and visual methods can further contribute to KT in practice, although it likely the same issue with methodological quality might come into play here, too.

What she and her team are doing is looking at the process of sharing stories and, from a research perspective, sharing stories appears to not have been worth investing in scientifically. At least, not enough to generate a lot of studies and good evidence.

One could argue that knowledge translation is still new and that it takes time to generate such evidence. That is partly true, but it is also an easy prop for those who want to avoid the messiness that comes with communication (and its problematic research context), learning from others, and creating more equitable information spaces, which is what knowledge translation ultimately does. Knowledge translation has also been in use for almost 20 years so in that time — even with the most dismal assessment of the length of time it takes to put knowledge into practice — we should be seeing some decent research published.

KT is fundamentally about sharing. Journalists’ are rewarded for sharing — the more they share and the more people who they share with (as measured by readers, listeners, viewers etc..) the more successful they are in their work. Teachers are rewarded for sharing because that means that they are teaching people. Librarians are rewarded for sharing because that means people are checking out books and using the resources in their library.

We don’t apply the same standard to academic research, even though we have some crude metrics to measure reach and impact,  and there is roughly no metric for the degree to which clinicians share among themselves. Maybe this needs to change.

I have scientific colleagues who are fierce in the face of their most strident academic critics and have delivered keynotes to auditoriums filled with researchers that are nearly paralyzed in the face of speaking to the public. This is not fear of public speaking, its fear of speaking to the public.

Should they be? I don’t think speaking to the public should be expected to be enjoyable for everyone, but neither are doing statistical calculations, completing ethics applications, or presenting posters at conferences, but we still expect scientists to do that. We still expect nurses, doctors, psychologists, medical technicians and social workers to traverse complex social problems to talk to their patients in an open and honest way.

Why is it when scientists are speaking to policy makers, clinicians to scientists, policy makers to the public, or any professional to another from another discipline, speciality or division we decide its not critical for them to make the effort?

Why don’t we do the research to support it? 

Why is it OK not to do KT because its uncomfortable, awkward, difficult or confusing?

Declining interest, rising demand

It is perhaps for reasons like this that knowledge translation is so poorly understood and taken up as a focus for research. Looking at Google NGram data (which tracks mention of specific topics in books and publications) we see a steady rise in citations until about 2003 followed by a levelling off. Keep in mind that the leveling begins before social media became known. In the years after Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — arguably the most powerful communications media we have for doing knowledge translation widely (but perhaps not deeply) — there is roughly no sharp increase.

Below are the citations for the terms knowledge translation, knowledge exchange, and knowledge integration  from 1996 (when the Web first started gaining wide use beyond academia and the military) and 2008, the latest year for which there is available data. Note that the numbers reflect general mentions as a percentage of overall terms, so they are relative, not absolute values.

Figure 1: Google NGram Data for KT, KE & KI: 1996-2008

Knowledge Translation, Exchange & Integration NGram

Is there so much other stuff to talk about in 2013 that the relative importance of knowledge translation is diminished?

A look at Google Trend data using the same terms finds that not only are these concepts not growing, their mention is actually shrinking.

Looking at the three terms we see that all three concepts have declined over time. During these years — 2004-2013 — we saw not only the birth of social media, but the rise of Internet-enabled handheld devices to allow knowledge to be shared anywhere there is a data signal. We now have apps and nearly all of the Internets resources in our pockets and we are seeing a decline in the use of these terms.

Figure 2: Google Trend Data for KT, KE & KI: 1996-2013

Knowledge Term Trends

Where to?

So to review: We have a body of evidence in KT that is problematic and incomplete at the same time we have a decrease in use of the terms, while at the very same time we have a sharp rise in available tools and technologies to share information quickly and a continued, steady demand for more information to make decisions for health providers, patients, policy makers and insurers.

Yes, the data presented here are not perfect. But does it not make sense that there should at least be some trend upward if knowledge translation is valued? Should we not see some shift to more research, better research evidence, and greater interest given the tools and scope of communications we have through social media?

This begs the question: is knowledge translation in health too important to leave to health professionals? 

In future posts this question will be looked at in greater depth. Stay tuned.

* Blog has been updated since original post

8 Comments on “Is Knowledge Translation In Health Too Important to Leave to Health Professionals?

    • Thanks for the comments and suggestion. I agree, a tweet and meet is probably in order. There’s much to talk about that extends well beyond this post into a bigger conversation about having research impact. Will send something your way to arrange this.

  1. Great Post. I wonder how the phrase ‘implementation science’ would compare in the Google trends? Let me know if you decide to do a ‘tweet up’ on this.

  2. Great Post. I wonder how the term ‘implementation science’ would fare in Google Trends compared to those others. Let me know if you do decide to do a ‘tweet up’ on this, as I’d be very interested.

  3. Thanks for the comment. Good question about Implementation Science; I’m sure it would do a little better, but whether its good enough is another question. There is little reason we shouldn’t be seeing these numbers — as imperfect as they are — at least going up not down. Further, the fact that we STILL after 20+ years of discussion on KT and its related areas don’t have sufficient evidence to speak well to what works is appalling. It really shows the absence of this being a priority. Regardless of how sharp the curve goes, there is no reason for us to have the state of knowledge in this condition at this time and place.

  4. Great post! I think the issue of KT and, in particular, strategies to improve dissemination of research is so important, given what we know about health literacy rates, the rise of social media (and diaspora of users). Storytelling has been used well and effectively in other disciplines – anthropology, sociology, education – and a key policy lever via media advocacy. This is an important discussion to have in both public health and KE fields.

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