Frontiers in Public Health Services & Systems Research: Making Critical Research Accessible, Quickly

Apr 19, 2012, 2:22 PM, Posted by Glen Mays, NewPublicHealth

Idea Gallery is a recurring editorial series on NewPublicHealth in which guest authors provide their perspective on issues affecting public health. Today, Glen Mays, MPH, PhD, F. Douglas Scutchfield Endowed Professor of Health Services and Systems Research at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, talks about the launch of a brand new online journal covering public health systems and services research, and why it is so critical right now, to inform smart investments in public health and prevention. The new journal, Frontiers in PHSSR, is designed to disseminate the most critical early findings from PHSSR research much faster—making these findings accessible far in advance of the fully-developed scientific manuscript. To be eligible for inclusion in Frontiers, findings must have the potential to guide future public health practice, health policy, and research. Mays is the editor in chief of the new journal.

Portions of the post below are adapted from the opening commentary in Frontiers, authored by Mays, F. Douglas Scutchfield, Paul K. Halverson, William Riley and Peggy Honore.

The need for a strong and effective public health system in the United States is perhaps more urgent today than at any other time in our nation’s history. Preventable diseases and injuries account for more than three-fourths of the $2.6 trillion in health care expenditures incurred annually in the U.S. The growing prevalence of obesity, diabetes and other preventable conditions constrains the nation’s economic productivity and global competitiveness. The American public health system—the diffuse constellation of governmental public health agencies and their peers and partners in community-based settings and the private sector—is tasked with developing and delivering strategies that promote health and prevent disease and injury on a population-wide basis. They share the mission of creating conditions in which people can be healthy.

The public health system is uniquely positioned—but not optimally equipped or resourced—to take on these challenges. Only about 3 percent of the nation’s $2.6 trillion in annual health expenditures is devoted to public health activities. Some of our greatest uncertainties now lie in how best to organize, finance, and deliver effective public health prevention strategies to communities across the U.S. The field of public health services and systems research (PHSSR) has emerged to fill this void.

Frontiers in PHSSR

The American public health system and the populations it serves do not have the luxury of waiting the 15 years typically required to get research-tested solutions widely adopted into practice. The costs associated with missed opportunities for disease prevention and health promotion are straining government and household budgets now.

To help develop and grow this scientific learning community, we have launched a new, open-access, peer-reviewed journal, Frontiers in Public Health Services and Systems Research. This journal provides a platform for rapidly and widely communicating emerging findings and lessons learned from studies of public health services and delivery systems. Frontiers will feature brief descriptions of preliminary findings from ongoing or recently completed empirical studies and quality improvement projects that answer important questions regarding the organization, financing, and delivery of public health services.

There are two chief goals of Frontiers—accelerating the cycle time that it takes to get research findings disseminated and expanding the reach to critical readers. The practice and policy communities, for example, often don’t have access to libraries or resources to subscribe to the journals.

I think how Frontiers is packaged will also increase the likelihood that it will be read. The pieces are short, targeted with a maximum of 1,200 words and each one is accompanied by an editorial comment by a guest author to highlight the practice and policy implications of the research to really accentuate the information for those communities.

And since Frontiers is web-based, we’ll be able to link to it from blogs, websites and newsletters as well as use social media to announce new articles. Those are ways we can reach more people than traditional journals often do.

By speeding up dissemination, we can realize the value of investments in evidence-based practices. We’re trying to reduce the traditional cycle time that was often required to get research into widespread practice. That delay limits the value of the work; it’s no longer timely. We need to be able to help health agencies so that on an ongoing basis they can make changes as research may suggest. In terms of publishing, traditionally, lag time from submission to publication for articles in traditional journals has been 12 to 18 months. That’s frankly too long. Our goal is to work in a ten-week cycle. We balance publishing emerging findings with the downside of not having evidence—and the resulting inaction while we wait for confirmed findings. Having the editorial comment for each article puts the preliminary findings in context and empowers decision-makers to use that information appropriately.

And publishing in Frontiers doesn’t preclude researchers from publishing confirmed findings in another journal later with all the theory and methods. And we’ve developed a relationship with the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which will highlight findings but will also invite the authors to publish their full-blown findings on a preferential basis. It’s not one or another; we want them to do both.

Frontiers represents one of the PHSSR field’s first forays into the “open science” movement—the effort to make scientific inquiry more transparent, interactive, collaborative, accessible, and usable in the real world. As such, its success hinges on the active participation of both the producers and users of PHSSR. We invite you to engage in this bold new experiment by submitting and reviewing manuscripts, submitting commentaries and editorials, corresponding with authors, sharing findings with your colleagues, and providing the editorial board with your feedback on the journal’s successes and opportunities for improvement. Only through these types of engagement can we build a scientific learning community, embedded within the public health system, to move America to improved population health and lower health care costs.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.