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This week we are delighted to introduce Professor Declan Devane, Professor of Midwifery at NUI Galway, Director of Health Research Board – Trials Methodology Research Network (HRB-TMRN), an editor with the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group and honorary senior lecturer at Cochrane UK. Declan is now also the Director of Evidence Synthesis Ireland (ESI) and Cochrane Ireland. Launched in December 2018 ESI represents a major investment in increasing capacity in evidence synthesis by the Health Research Board Ireland and the Public Health Agency Northern Ireland. Jennifer chatted with Declan about his aspirations for ESI over the next three years.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in evidence synthesis today?

Two big challenges I think are raising awareness of the need for good quality evidence synthesis and then getting evidence syntheses used in decision making.

The first challenge is getting all of the stakeholders who should use evidence synthesis in their decision making to be aware of what it is and understand why synthesising the evidence is vital to good decision making. We need to raise awareness of how important evidence syntheses, and in particular systematic reviews, are to making good decisions in healthcare, from commissioning services to treating patients. In Ireland, systematic reviews to aid health care decision making remains a priority and that’s the major focus for ESI. Our major stakeholders are the general public, clinicians, researchers, and policymakers. We have plans to engage at different levels within and across these different groups. In the ESI training model, will be able to offer introductory level training in SRs for policymakers within the health services. In part to improve the use of existing evidence and partly to help people to understand why reviews are vital and that good robust work takes time and adequate resources.

Reporting on health care topics can rely too much on asking experts or reporting the results of a single study…what would be much more useful to members of the public, especially when it comes to making decisions about their own health, is for people to understand how to situate health claims in the global body of evidence.

The second challenge is improving how evidence synthesis is used. In healthcare, there is still a lot of work to be done on the use of evidence synthesis. That includes improving the general public’s understanding of evidence synthesis to help them to make decisions about their own health. Reporting on health care topics can rely too much on asking experts or reporting the results of a single study. One day there will be a report on the health benefits of reducing alcohol intake, the next a story about a single study that says drinking red wine is good for you. So the general public making decisions then are faced with seemingly contradictory advice. Another example is vaccinations, which is quite topical in the evidence synthesis community at the moment. The discussion will tend to focus on the opinions of experts so the message will be ‘the experts support the use of vaccines…’ but of course the other side of the debate will be able to present another ‘expert’ to take the opposing view. What would be much more useful to members of the public, especially when it comes to making decisions about their own health, is for people to understand how to situate health claims in the global body of evidence. Improving awareness of evidence synthesis and how useful and important it is, could be a route to improving people’s ability to assess health claims and make good decisions for their own health. That’s something we hope to tackle with the support of ESI’s ‘journalist in residence’ Dr. Muiris Houston.

Read the article in full here.

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