Improvement science: finding the evidence to support healthcare improvement

17 April 2012

Our NHS is under increasing pressure. We face rising demand from an ageing population, increasing numbers of people with long-term conditions, and financial constraints which look set to continue well beyond 2015. The need for a solid evidence base to support healthcare improvement is now stronger than ever.

At the Health Foundation we aim to build a practical and accessible body of knowledge about what works to improve healthcare. We also want to help those working in healthcare translate this knowledge into practice. We call this area of work improvement science.

The importance of improvement science

Throughout the NHS staff are working hard to make care better and safer for patients. However, all too often there is a lack of evidence to support the improvement methods being used. New ideas are successfully introduced, but it can be hard to demonstrate precisely how the components of an initiative act to bring about the improvement, or show which particular projects, methods or techniques work best.

This can make it really difficult to spread good ideas and ensure that effective practice is widely adopted.

Improvement science blends ideas and approaches from a wide range of different academic disciplines, aiming to use these to meet the need to apply solid research evidence about what works to improve healthcare to the way we deliver improvement on the ground.

A meeting of international minds

The Health Foundation is leading the development of improvement science as an umbrella discipline, drawing in expertise from disciplines such as operational research, statistics, evaluation and psychology.

In particular, we have set up the Improvement Science Development Group which brings together experts in improvement science from all over the world. They come together twice a year to share their knowledge and develop the underpinning theories and methods for this new field. One of the key roles for this group is to act as mentors to our Improvement Science Fellows, nurturing and developing the future leaders of improvement science, including Dr Julie Reed, one of our interviewees this month.

Driving the discipline forward: our plans

The Health Foundation is working closely with the development group to drive forward the development of theories, methods and implementation of exemplars of improvement science. Many of our joint projects are showcased in this month’s newsletter.

This year we will recruit four new Improvement Science Fellows. We are seeking outstanding researchers to undertake original applied research that has the potential to make a real difference to the quality of healthcare in the UK.

Exciting plans are also afoot to provide awards to support PhD studies in leading UK universities. We hope this scheme will help existing improvement science research centres to increase involvement from a wider range of academic disciplines, enabling truly multi-disciplinary development of improvement approaches. We will be seeking expressions of interest from university research centres over the summer and selecting the award holders by the end of the year.

We will continue our successful series of webinars which are introducing improvement science thinking to a broad range of improvement practitioners and researchers. We have also commissioned international research to identify centres of improvement science in healthcare around the world. This will help us make new links, share learning and ‘hothouse’ the developments that could lead to breakthroughs in the theory, methods and evaluation of healthcare improvement.

With so much going on, these are exciting times. Visit the improvement science topic page on our website to stay up to date as these projects develop.

Further reading


Improvement research

The Health Foundation is leading the development and application of a sound knowledge base to improving health care quality, ...


Improvement research

Improvement research, also known as improvement science, is about finding out how to improve and make changes in the most eff...

Newsletter feature

Reframing the relationship between science and improvement

We talk to Dr Julie Reed, one of our Improvement Science Fellows, about how she’s found the scheme and what she wants her res...

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