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Health Affairs' Study Shows Nearly Half of Research Lacks Relevance; Much Goes Unread by Overwhelmed Policy Makers

March 12, 2002

Alwyn Cassil: (202) 264-3484

ASHINGTON, D.C.—Nearly half of the health policy research coming over the transom of state policy makers lacks relevance to current debates, and more than a third goes unread by overwhelmed officials, according to a study by a Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) researcher published in the March/April edition of the journal Health Affairs.

"The study findings should serve as a wake-up call to the health services research community to evaluate the relevance of their research to the real-world information needs of elected state officials, legislative staff and agency officials," said Richard Sorian, a senior researcher and director of public affairs at HSC, a nonpartisan policy research organization funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Sorian conducted the study, which was supported by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, while he was a senior researcher at the Georgetown University Institute for Health Care Research and Policy and wrote the article with Terry Baugh, president of T. Baugh and Co., a Washington D.C.-based market research firm.

Based on telephone interviews with almost 300 state policy makers, the study found policy makers read 27 percent of the information they receive in detail, skim 53 percent for general content and "never get to" 35 percent of the material.

Other key findings include:

  • When asked what makes research relevant to them, 67 percent of policy makers identified the information’s relation to current debates and 25 percent cited impact on "real" people.
  • When asked what makes information least useful, responses included "not relevant or focused on real problems (36 percent); too long, dense or detailed (22 percent); too theoretical, technical or "jargony" (20 percent); and not objective/biased (19 percent).
  • Despite discarding or skimming most of the information they receive, policy makers reported reading a large amount of information about health policy, with nearly half indicating they read five or more health policy articles a week.
  • Policy makers are more likely to read material that is short, broken into bullets and accompanied by charts or graphs illustrating key points.

"Health policy research must be both rigorous and relevant to capture policy makers’ attention, and there was a strong preference for short, easy-to-digest information," Sorian said. "In other words, short is better than long and a picture truly is worth a thousand words."

Policy makers also often consider the source of information when deciding to read or use information in the policy process. A large majority (84 percent) said they trust some sources more than others. When asked to identify trusted information sources, nearly half (48 percent) named a professional organization, such as the National Conference of State Legislatures; 21 percent named a state group, such as a medical society or hospital association; 21 percent named a foundation; 14 percent identified think tanks; and 6 percent cited universities.

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The Center for Studying Health System Change is a nonpartisan policy research organization committed to providing objective and timely research on the nation’s changing health system to help inform policy makers and contribute to better health care policy. HSC, based in Washington, D.C., is funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and affiliated with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Health Affairs, published by Project HOPE, is a bimonthly multidisciplinary journal devoted to publishing the leading edge in health policy thought and research. For more information, contact Jon Gardner at Health Affairs at (301) 652-7401, ext. 230, or via e-mail,


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The Center for Studying Health System Change Ceased operation on Dec. 31, 2013.