Developing Health Policy Briefs to Bridge Research to Policy Translation Gaps

Joanna Buscemi, PhD

Joanna Buscemi, PhD

Joanna Buscemi, Ph.D.

Have you ever wanted your work to have a greater impact? Certainly, the field of health psychology has been responsible for many advances in health, such as developing evidenced-based interventions for people with chronic illness and spearheading efforts to prevent disease through health behavior change programs. We are fortunate that many of us can see this impact first hand either through clinical work with patients or through improvements in our research participants’ health or quality of life. However, there are instances where higher level systems prevent evidence-based interventions from reaching more people, and, importantly, those who need them the most. For example, in a policy environment where psychologists are not consistently reimbursed for behavioral weight management treatment, how are we able to make the greatest impact?

These questions of impact and policy-level barriers to broad scale dissemination of evidence-based interventions motivated me to pursue opportunities to communicate some of these barriers to policymakers. Through my role as the Health Policy Committee Chair of the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM), I have been fortunate enough to learn how to write health policy briefs. Health policy briefs aim to communicate research findings to policymakers. They provide the reader with the background literature necessary to make informed policy decisions, and typically close with recommendations that are clear and actionable. As an academic, it was initially challenging to change my way of thinking to communicate effectively with policymakers. My initial drafts of my first policy briefs were text dense, full of jargon, and overly cited. Over time, I have developed the following list of tips that I find useful in developing an effective health policy brief:

  1. Briefs are just that. Brief. I recommend not exceeding two single-spaced pages or your audience will be too overwhelmed to read your piece.
  2. Take on a timely issue. Congress is going to be more interested in a hot-button issue that is a public health concern than a less timely topic. You will be more likely to be heard if you select an issue that is already on the minds of lawmakers.
  3. Work on a team. Assemble a team of authors that have expertise in your topic, and be open to lots of feedback to make sure you get the message just right.
  4. Identify your audience. Generally, the briefs I develop are targeting legislative aides, but they can also target school systems or health care providers, for example.
  5. Identify 2-3 key recommendations based on the literature. If you include too many recommendations, you will lose your reader. Make sure these recommendations are clear, concise, specific, and actionable. For example, if the recommendation is to ensure that the Affordable Care Act reimburses for treatment of weight management by psychologists, is there a specific section of the Act that should be revised? Where is it located, and how should it be revised?
  6. Make sure there is enough literature to support your policy recommendations. A single randomized controlled trial is not sufficient evidence to inform a policy decision.
  7. Make sure that your target audience can do something about the recommendations you propose. If you include a recommendation that more research is needed, for example, your legislative aide might think, “Great, but I don’t do research!” Instead, it might be more appropriate to request that Congress increase funding through the National Institutes of Health to support your specific research recommendation.
  8. Partner up! Who are the like-minded professional organizations who might want to endorse your brief (e.g., American Heart Association, The Obesity Society, American Cancer Society)? Contact them to see if they are willing, and then set a plan for how they might help to disseminate the brief.
  9. Make a dissemination plan and execute it. SBM disseminates their briefs by posting to their website and social media pages and emailing copies of the brief to legislative aides.
  10. Don’t forget to follow up! Most of the key issues health policy briefs cover are ongoing. As legislation changes, make sure to follow up with your legislative aides or other stakeholders (e.g., school districts, health professionals) to continue the relationship building process and to keep trying to move the needle on your policy issue.

Health policy briefs give us the opportunity to weigh in on significant public health issues at federal levels. It is important to remember that policymakers can really benefit from our expertise. During one of our visits to Capitol Hill, I learned that members of Congress and their staff do not have access to PubMed or PsycINFO, making it impossible for them to obtain the literature to inform their policies. Therefore, it is, in a sense, our duty to work to communicate these messages to lawmakers. Although psychologists do not routinely receive training in policy communication in the context of our graduate programs, our professional organizations allow us opportunities to be engaged in policy work. The Health Policy Committee of SBM and the Health Policy Council of the Society for Health Psychology (SfHP) have collaborated on a number of health policy briefs. If you are interested in pitching an idea for a brief, feel free to contact me at jbuscem2@depaul.edu, and we can work with SfHP to develop a focus and aims for the brief. If we all consider advocating for health policy change as part of our job descriptions, we might be able to increase our population-level impact as psychologists.