Tapping into personal networks to share research and improve evidence uptake

Stakeholder networks play a key role in the dissemination and uptake of IWH research

As an occupational therapist providing services on return-to-work issues to employers, Gabriele Wright strives as much as possible to base her processes and recommendations on research evidence. That’s why she values her involvement in the Institute for Work & Health (IWH)’s Educationally Influential Network for Occupational Therapists.

Once a year, the network gets together to hear IWH research teams present findings and share lessons learned from their projects. Network members are then asked for their perspectives as practitioners on a range of issues—from how to convey study results to what research questions should be explored in future work. 

What she values most about her involvement in the network is “being informed of the high quality research and evidence around work-related functioning issues,” says Wright, referring to both the research conducted at IWH and the scientific evidence from elsewhere that is evaluated and synthesized in IWH systematic reviews.

If it weren’t for these meetings, she adds, she might not have access to the research evidence she needs in her work. It has been a long time since I’ve been in a post-secondary academic environment, says Wright. As a health professional, it behooves me to reference research and evidence as much as I can, and combine that with my clinical experience.

Research uptake a social process

Research organizations are increasingly recognizing that interpersonal relationships and networks play an important role in knowledge dissemination. According to this thinking, research uptake is a social process, and the interpersonal connections between people can be key to whether research makes an impression and becomes integrated into people’s understanding and practices. And as most people move in many overlapping networks, they often will take a learning they’ve gained from one network and pass it along to another.

At the Institute, networks are in place to help disseminate IWH research to almost  every stakeholder group that might use it. (These networks are in addition to the multi-stakeholder advisory committees that are formed for discrete research projects.) All the networks share a common purpose: to promote evidence-informed policy and practice in the prevention of work injury and disability.

For clinical professionals, five “educationally influential” (EI) networks for occupational therapists, physiotherapists, ergonomists, kinesiologists and chiropractors have been meeting for over 10 years. For workplace injury or disability prevention professionals, the Disability Managers Network has been meeting since 2011, and the newly formed Occupational Health and Safety Professionals Network had its first meeting in December 2015.

In addition to these, IWH maintains two networks dedicated to workplace parties, the Labour Forum and the Employer Forum, both established in 2013.  The Institute also hosts a network of prevention system representatives, the Prevention Knowledge Exchange Group (PKEG), which brings together representatives from IWH, the Centres for Research Expertise (for musculoskeletal disorders, occupational disease and occupational cancer), the Ministry of Labour, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and the six health and safety associations in Ontario. (The latter comprises four sector-based associations— Infrastructure Health & Safety Association, Public Services Health & Safety Association, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services and Workplace Safety North—as well as the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and the Workers Health & Safety Centre.)

In 2015, the Institute launched a network of “influential knowledge users” (IKUs). These are non-academic stakeholders who value work and health research, actively promote the use of evidence to inform policy or practice in their or other organizations, and are able to influence policy or practice. The group meets twice a year to share ideas about improving knowledge transfer and exchange across all the organizations represented.

We’ve tried to develop networks that relate to almost all of our key types of stakeholders, says Dr. Ron Saunders, director of knowledge transfer and exchange at IWH. We invariably find the meetings helpful. At virtually every network meeting we are either learning something new about stakeholder priorities or stakeholder practices that we didn’t know, or the stakeholders are learning something about our research that make them interested in knowing more and potentially using it.

The networks also help inform IWH’s research planning so that Institute projects stay relevant, adds Saunders. Through our relationships we learn about research opportunities and about research priorities in our stakeholder networks. We make connections that help us engage individual stakeholders in our research projects, and we increase the chances that the work we do will be seen as useful and will be used.

EI members nominated by peers

Most of the members in these various groups are recruited through personal contact and other networks. We reach out to people who have demonstrated an interest in the use of research in their practice, says Sara Macdonald, a knowledge exchange associate who coordinates some of the networks.

Because the five educationally influential networks are designed to bring together people who are considered by others in their respective professions to be mentors or opinion leaders, their members are chosen somewhat differently, Macdonald adds. EI members are identified through a process of nomination: a survey is sent out to members of professional associations asking recipients to identify practitioners who enjoy teaching others, who take the time to share what they know, who care about patients, to name just a few criteria.

As expected, the sharing of evidence doesn’t stop at the network meetings. When Wright receives a newsletter from IWH or comes across an article on research relevant to her work, she takes the time to send out an e-mail to her contacts about it, highlighting relevant articles for them. She does this, she says, because of her involvement in the EI network. 

Because I’ve been named a third time, it’s now taken on a life of its own where I feel even more my responsibility to share research information, says Wright. It’s the right thing to do—even if it means I have to make the time.

Network members, in turn, also benefit.  When Wright is helping employers solve health and safety issues, she can confidently refer to research evidence when making her recommendations. For example, when employers come to her to help address an ongoing musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) issue, Wright can walk them through the research on a participatory ergonomics approach, which she learned about through the EI network.

I can say to them, ‘This is what the evidence is saying as most likely to result in an optimal outcome.’ I bring in one of the summaries for them to read about the participatory approach, says Wright. She does it with confidence, she adds, which in turns leads to greater buy-in from employers.

At the Labour Forum, network member Alec Farquhar also makes it a point to share research that he finds inspiring with the 200 to 300 people in his personal contact list. There’s a multiplicative effect, says Farquhar, director of the Office of the Worker Advisor, a Ministry of Labour agency that provides advice and representation to injured workers on workplace insurance matters. It goes way beyond the participants at that table, and that probably goes for everyone there, who tend to be opinion leaders. If there’s something extremely valuable at that network, in a day or two, it’s everywhere.

For Farquhar, the value of the network meetings also goes beyond what he learns about research findings. I’ve benefited greatly, not just from learning leading-edge results, but also from the dialogue with front-line colleagues and researchers—which has often generated new ideas, areas to be explored and promising collaborations, Farquhar says.

Practitioners are often isolated in the organizations within which they work, and it’s difficult to break out of old patterns and ways of working, he adds. Being drawn into collaborative discussions helps practitioners go back to their organizations with new ideas.

To learn more about the IWH’s networks, go to: http://www.iwh.on.ca/knowledge-transfer-exchange.

Source: At Work, Issue 83, Winter 2016: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto

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