Approaches, tools and methods used for setting priorities in health research in the 21(st) century

J Glob Health. 2016 Jun;6(1):010507. doi: 10.7189/jogh.06.010507.


Background: Health research is difficult to prioritize, because the number of possible competing ideas for research is large, the outcome of research is inherently uncertain, and the impact of research is difficult to predict and measure. A systematic and transparent process to assist policy makers and research funding agencies in making investment decisions is a permanent need.

Methods: To obtain a better understanding of the landscape of approaches, tools and methods used to prioritize health research, I conducted a methodical review using the PubMed database for the period 2001-2014.

Results: A total of 165 relevant studies were identified, in which health research prioritization was conducted. They most frequently used the CHNRI method (26%), followed by the Delphi method (24%), James Lind Alliance method (8%), the Combined Approach Matrix (CAM) method (2%) and the Essential National Health Research method (<1%). About 3% of studies reported no clear process and provided very little information on how priorities were set. A further 19% used a combination of expert panel interview and focus group discussion ("consultation process") but provided few details, while a further 2% used approaches that were clearly described, but not established as a replicable method. Online surveys that were not accompanied by face-to-face meetings were used in 8% of studies, while 9% used a combination of literature review and questionnaire to scrutinise the research options for prioritization among the participating experts.

Conclusion: The number of priority setting exercises in health research published in PubMed-indexed journals is increasing, especially since 2010. These exercises are being conducted at a variety of levels, ranging from the global level to the level of an individual hospital. With the development of new tools and methods which have a well-defined structure - such as the CHNRI method, James Lind Alliance Method and Combined Approach Matrix - it is likely that the Delphi method and non-replicable consultation processes will gradually be replaced by these emerging tools, which offer more transparency and replicability. It is too early to say whether any single method can address the needs of most exercises conducted at different levels, or if better results may perhaps be achieved through combination of components of several methods.