Background: Progress towards universal health coverage requires health policies and systems that are informed by contextualised and actionable research. Many challenges impede the uptake of evidence to enhance health policy implementation and the coverage, quality, efficiency and equity of health systems. To address this need, we developed an innovative model of implementation research embedded in real-world policy and programme cycles and led directly by policy-makers and health systems decision-makers. The approach was tested in ten settings in Latin America and the Caribbean, supported under a common funding and capacity strengthening initiative. The present study aims to analyse ten embedded implementation research projects in order to identify barriers and facilitators to embedding research into policy and practice as well as to assess the programme, policy and systems improvements and the cross-cutting lessons in conducting research embedded in real-world policy and systems decision-making.
Methods: The multi-country analysis is based on the triangulation of data collected via three methods, namely (1) document review, (2) an electronic questionnaire and (3) in-depth interviews with decision-makers. Data from the document review was charted and narratively synthesised. Data from the questionnaire was used to assess three characteristics of the decision-maker's participation in embedded research, namely (1) level of engagement in different stages of research; (2) extent to which their capacities to conduct and use research were developed; and (3) the level of confidence in undertaking implementation research activities. Interview data was analysed using a thematic approach.
Results: The main barriers to effective delivery or scale-up of health interventions identified in the research projects were inadequate financing, fragmentation of healthcare services and information systems, limited capacity of health system stakeholders, insufficient time, cultural factors, and a lack of information. Decision-makers' experience in embedded research showed strong engagement in protocol development, moderate engagement in data collection and low engagement in data analysis. The in-depth interviews identified 17 facilitators and 8 barriers to embedding research into policy and systems. The principal facilitating factors were actionability of findings, relevance of research and engagement of decision-makers, whereas the main barriers were time and political processes. In Argentina, the research led to the development of new monitoring indicators to improve the implementation of the perinatal health policy, while in Chile, empirical findings supported the establishment of a training programme on reproductive rights, targeted to municipal health facilities.
Conclusions: This multi-country analysis contributes to the evidence base for the embedded research approach to support health policy and systems decisions-making. Embedding research into policy and practice stimulates the relevance and applicability of research, while promoting decision-makers' engagement and likelihood to use research evidence in policy-making and health systems strengthening.
Keywords: Implementation research; co-production; embedding research; engagement; health systems research; health systems strengthening; maternal health; policy-making; universal health coverage.