Nachemson lecture: Research partnering with policy for data access the way forward

Partnership between UBC and WorkSafeBC serves as model for granting access to big data

Published: February 28, 2014

Long before most people heard the term, researchers have recognized the value of tapping into “big data” to build evidence to guide policy questions.

In British Columbia, one group of health researchers has spent the last 15 years formulating a partnership model with the province's workers' compensation system, WorkSafeBC, to access and use administrative data for research on work injury, occupational disease prevention and compensation policy. Administrative data refers to data that’s collected for purposes other than research, such as compensation claim records.

Called the Partnership for Work, Health and Safety, the initiative has proven fertile ground for important research findings and provides a model for collaboration between researchers and policy partners. This is according to Dr. Mieke Koehoorn, a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s School of Population and Public Health.

Koehoorn shared this and some lessons she learned as co-lead of the partnership at the 2013 Alf Nachemson Memorial Lecture, the annual lecture series organized by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). The lecture took place in Toronto in November 2013.

One of the lessons Koehoorn learned was this: ensuring a successful partnership takes nurturing. It has often been like maintaining a common-law relationship, she said. For research evidence to inform and impact policy, the researcher-policy/decision-maker relationship needs to be long-term and committed.

Another important lesson she learned was to adopt a new perspective on how research impacts policy. Quoting Dr. Carol Weiss of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Koehoorn said research findings may not immediately influence regulatory standard. She said the partnership helped her realize that the impact of research on policy is more broad and encompassing. It includes influencing how policy-makers think about an issue, justify a policy or decision, set or act on priorities, and monitor and modify policies.

Learning from data linkages

The Partnership for Work, Health and Safety had its beginnings in the late 1990s, when WorkSafeBC and UBC teamed up to help answer questions raised by the Royal Commission on Workers’ Compensation in British Columbia. The collaboration allowed for pioneering work in linking workers’ compensation claims data with other health-related databases.

This work demonstrated proof of concept, said Koehoorn. It demonstrated the utility and ability of these data to inform policy issues and to answer policy-relevant research questions.

After the initial work for the Royal Commission, the partnership continued to link compensation claims data with health data to provide evidence of the percentage of people in the province with work-related respiratory diseases and diseases associated with working with asbestos. In both cases, said Koehoorn, using B.C. data provided compelling evidence to WorkSafeBC that these were priority areas. The research supported the agency’s decisions to expand compensation for work-aggravated asthma and to improve recognition of asbestos-related disease in the province.

From there, the research agenda expanded to include the use of administrative data to evaluate compensation policies and programs. The work at this phase included a study evaluating surgical policies for work-related injuries and a project examining mandatory certification of tree fallers and its impact on injury rates.

Through this research, Koehoorn learned that decision-makers were receptive to research that provided justification of existing policies or that can be used to refine the implementation of policies. 

Building trust between policy and research

Today, the relationship has matured to the point where the policy partners trust their research partners to explore more complex and sensitive policy questions—such as how to evaluate inspections and other health and safety practices, or how to address gender differences in work injury and disability rates.

Research impact at this stage, said Koehoorn, is the result of a trusted and on-going interaction, where the policy-maker relies on knowledge generated by the researcher, and the researcher in turn gains access to data.

Big data matters—for having an impact, for providing population-based evidence in a local context that resonates with the policy-maker, said Koehoorn. Supporting public access models to use this data for research purposes is the way forward.

To hear the full Nachemson lecture while viewing the slides, go to: