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Earlier this month, I attended my first conference on rapid evaluation in health care, organised by the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation's Improvement Analytics Unit. As an early career data analyst, I arrived jittery with nerves and in my best work trousers. I was ready to meet colleagues from different organisations and learn something new about rapid evaluation. 

Rapid evaluations have a crucial role to play in enabling evidence-based decisions in health and social care. This conference – now in its sixth year – brings together those interested in rapid evaluation, including evaluators, commissioners, decision makers, implementers and service users, to discuss challenges and opportunities.

Over eight sessions, speakers from patient and public involvement organisations, think tanks and others shared their thoughts on how we can better make informed decisions in a system under pressure. Speaking on the theme of ‘evidence-based decisions when budgets are tight: rapid evaluation and knowledge mobilisation’, almost every session highlighted the importance of collaboration. It’s through collaboration that we can address the problems that matter most for patients and ensure the use of evidence in decision making. 

Five ways to boost collaboration

1. Invest in long-term relationships 

One key to successful collaboration is investing in relationships long term. This was mentioned in both the session on Research and evaluation: working collaboratively across organisations and the session on Informative evaluation: successful collaboration between analysts and decision makers. Dr Minal Bakhai, a national director in the NHS who is also a GP, compared this with the importance of continuity of care for patients in her GP practice. When a trusting relationship has been established, you don’t need to spend time at the beginning of every new project explaining why you are doing a piece of work. If the rapid evaluation team is included from the start of a project, they can also ensure the collection of the data they will need instead of having to use whatever is available when they are brought in. 

2. Set up institutional structures that reward collaboration  

Individual willingness is important, but institutions also need to create environments in which collaboration is easy and rewarded. If different research teams have to compete for the same limited funding, it’s hard to convince them to share their learnings. Similarly, if information governance makes it impossible to work with someone else’s data, individuals across organisations cannot effectively collaborate. 

3. Speak the same language 

Another thing that can hinder effective collaboration is the lack of a shared language. As Dr Marc Farr, a chief analytical officer at an NHS trust, humorously pointed out in the closing panel (From rapid evaluation to rapid change), ‘knowledge mobilisation’ is a lovely academic phrase, but it doesn’t mean a lot to most people. The issues caused by this lack of a shared language came up over and over. Call your project an ‘evaluation’, and your funder will turn you down. Call it a ‘research project’, and they won’t. Or maybe the other way around. Even the word ‘rapid’ doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. As Richard Kirby pointed out in the closing panel, as an academic research term, ‘rapid’ means less than a year. For the chief executive of an NHS trust, ‘rapid’ means next Tuesday. 

This problem isn’t unique to health care research. Every discipline has its own terminology. These short hands are useful for general concepts, or no conversation would fit into 5 minutes. But they also make it more difficult to communicate and collaborate across fields and institutions.

4. Translate for different audiences 

We don’t need to stop using short hands, but we do need to get better at translating what we do. Another data analyst will know what I mean when I say: ‘Results from the log-likelihood test indicated that including an interaction term for the index of multiple deprivation led to improved model fit.’ A policymaker is more likely to know what I mean if I say: ‘If you roll out this programme more widely, things are going to get worse for the groups that already have worse health.’ 

5. Know where to go for help

It’s easy to tell people to translate for different audiences, but it’s hard to do. Luckily, there is help available. The easiest way to find out if what you wrote makes sense to someone else is to ask. The role of patient and public involvement organisations and how to best incorporate their insights was explored in the session on Patient and public involvement in rapid evaluation: what it means and how it can be done. Another way to facilitate collaboration is to get as many stakeholders as possible into a room in the early stages of a project, then work out what positive difference they are trying to make and the steps to get there – or, to use the academic term, use a theory of change model (see the session on Informative evaluation: successful collaboration between analysts and decision makers ).

A tight-knit community looking to do better 

I came away from my first rapid evaluation conference with the impression of a tight-knit community that wants to make things better for patients and is constantly looking to do better in their own work, and I am excited to come back next year.  

Watch videos of the full 2024 conference.

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