In an ideal world, researchers and decision-makers would be involved from the outset in co-producing evidence, with local health needs assessments informing the research agenda and research evidence informing the actions taken to improve health. The first step in improving the health of individuals and populations is therefore gaining a better understanding of what the main health problems are, and of these, which are the most urgent priorities by using both quantitative data to develop a health portrait and qualitative data to better understand why the local population thinks that addressing certain health challenges should be prioritized in their context. Understanding the causes of these health problems often involves analytical research, such as case-control and cohort studies, or qualitative studies to better understand how more complex exposures lead to specific health problems (e.g. by interviewing local teenagers discovering that watching teachers smoke in the school yard, peer pressure, and media influence smoking initiation among youth). Such research helps to develop a logic model to better map out the proximal and distal causes of poor health and to determine potential pathways for intervening and impacting health outcomes. Rarely is there a single 'cure' or stand-alone intervention, but rather, a continuum of strategies are needed from diagnosis and treatment of patients already affected, to disease prevention, health promotion and addressing the upstream social determinants of health. Research for developing and testing more upstream interventions must often go beyond randomized controlled trials, which are expensive, less amenable to more complex interventions, and can be associated with certain ethical challenges. Indeed, a much neglected area of the research cycle is implementation and evaluation research, which often involves quasi-experimental research study designs as well as qualitative research, to better understand how to derive the greatest benefit from existing interventions and ways of maximizing health improvements in specific local contexts. There is therefore a need to alter current incentive structures within the research enterprise to place greater emphasis on implementation and evaluation research conducted in collaboration with knowledge users who are in a position to use the findings in practice to improve health.
Keywords: Decision-making; Evidence-based medicine; Health equity; Health policy; Public health; Research.