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Social Marketing Helps Translate AHRQ Research Into Practice

Allan J. Lazar, for HealthLeaders Media, February 17, 2010

How long do you think it takes for the latest evidence-based research findings—new data on heart disease treatment or ways to reduce emergency room waiting time—to make their way into clinical practice?

Most people are surprised to learn that it's an average of 17 years. That lag time would be troubling for any industry aiming to improve its performance. But it poses a crucial problem in healthcare, where costs and quality issues are under close scrutiny.

Why is the journey from findings to practice epic in length?

Research information is typically shared among selected audiences, often leaving the groups that could benefit the most, such as patients, healthcare providers, or health purchasers, without information they could put to use. Too often, the status quo or more expensive, but not necessarily better, option wins the day.

Changing this dynamic does not happen overnight, but it can be done.

Using evidence-based research conducted in universities, hospitals, and health systems around the country, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) creates practical resources and tools that are ready to be used on the front lines of care. Long known for its focus on healthcare data, patient safety, and quality improvement, AHRQ, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has expanded its portfolio of work to include comparative effectiveness research and health information technology.

Social marketing can increase research uptake
Along with traditional and new media outreach, AHRQ uses social marketing techniques to identify and address the needs of targeted audiences, including clinicians, hospitals, pharmacists, healthcare purchasers, public policy decision-makers and patients. Social marketing has a decades-long and accomplished track record in public health improvements such as reducing tobacco use, heightening awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving, and preventing teen pregnancies.

Using social marketing to increase awareness and uptake of health services research findings, which is AHRQ's area of expertise, is at an earlier stage. Early work shows it holds significant promise.

AHRQ uses social marketing techniques to position its tools and resources to address audiences' various information needs. Tactics—which range from face-to-face "academic detailing" with state hospital associations and quality improvement groups, to relationship marketing with state policymakers, to national media campaigns for consumers—reflect the specific information needs and tailored approaches for these audiences.

Targeting information
Not long ago, the term "detailing" referred exclusively to the personal visits and free samples that drug company representatives provided to doctors. That method of awareness and uptake has been expanded. Today, the practice of "academic detailing" is used by government agencies and others to refer to educational interactions among doctors and pharmacists on a variety of issues, including potential drug-drug interactions, the effective use of generic medicines, and the promotion and awareness building about quality improvement tools.

Using the principles of academic detailing, AHRQ has reached out to state hospital associations and quality improvement organizations to teach them about tools and resources to enhance patient safety and to help share that information with their members. Tactics include face-to-face training sessions, Web tutorials, audio conferences, and other educational activities.

For example, AHRQ provided face-to-face training sessions and Web tutorials in late 2009 to give organizations representing 30 states guidance on how to use TeamSTEPPS, a system developed by AHRQ and the Department of Defense to improve communication and teamwork among healthcare professionals. The curriculum is rooted in more than 20 years of research and lessons about the application of teamwork principles. More than 1,100 master trainers in the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and The Netherlands have trained an estimated 12,000 healthcare professionals using the tools.

In January 2010, a Web tutorial for state hospital and quality improvement groups provided information about an AHRQ-funded project to re-engineer the hospital discharge process to reduce readmissions at a major Boston medical center. Called Project RED (for Re-Engineered Discharge), the initiative focuses on improving patient education and providing clear information before, during, and after the hospital discharge process.

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