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Health Policy & Systems Research

What is health policy and systems research?

Health policy and systems research (HPSR) is an emerging field that seeks to understand and improve how societies organize themselves achieve collective health goals, and how different actors interact in the policy and implementation processes to contribute to policy, system, and health outcomes’ (adapted from Alliance of Health Policy and Systems Research definition).

Researchers in this field strive to understand:

• What health systems are and how they operate
• How health systems can be strengthened to improve health outcomes and achieve wider social goals;
• What actions are needed to influence health policy agendas
• How to develop and implement such actions for optimal success

What kinds of issues would HPSR address

Since the health system can be broadly defined as anything which affects the health of populations, the scope for HPSR is extremely broad. It is chiefly concerned with research on upstream aspects of health such as financing, governance, access, human resources, implementation of services and delivery by both public and private providers, rather than clinical services or research

At the same time, HPSR is a critical tool for analysing policies and processes. It is concerned with research on policy and policy-making, implementation and the role of policy actors on policy outcomes. HPSR adopts a multi-layered approach, covering international, regional, national, and sub-national issues which influence health care in low- and middle-income countries.

Health policy and systems research can be employed at several points in the policy cycle from getting an issue onto to the policy agenda to evaluating and learning from implemented policies. As a result HSP researchers seek to influence policy and practice, and as such must engage with, and negotiate the information needs of policy actors.

Who does HPSR?

A key feature of HPSR is collaboration - gathering together an appropriate mix of experts in various fields to address research issues - rather than an over-riding preference for disciplines of study or methodology. Typically, HPSR would use the expertise of economists, sociologists, anthropologists, public health specialists and epidemiologists to tackle how health systems can respond and adapt to health policies.

For more on HPSR, visit http://www.who.int/alliance-hpsr/ or download a reader entitled Health Policy and Systems Research: A Methodology Reader which aims to provide a basis of understanding, ideas and experience to strengthen the quality of HPSR – including a collection of high quality papers that demonstrate the application of different HPSR strategies and methods. Edited by Lucy Gilson of the University of Cape Town and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, this publication provides guidance on the defining features of HPSR and the critical steps in conducting research in this field. It showcases the diverse range of research strategies and methods encompassed by HPSR. The target audience for the Reader includes researchers, teachers and students, as well as those working within health systems, and particularly those working in low-and middle-income countries.

To read more, click here for an article on “Building the Field of Health Policy and Systems Research: Framing the Questions”; click here for an article on "Building the Field of Health Policy and Systems Research: Social Science Matters"; and click here for the final paper in this series: "Building the Field of Health Policy and Systems Research: An Agenda for Action."

click here to read an article on "Trends in Health Policy and Systems Research over the Past Decade: Still Too Little Capacity in Low-Income Countries".

PLoS Medicine has published a three-part series on health systems guidance. click here for the first paper entitled "Guidance for Evidence-informed Policies about Health Systems: Rationale for and Challenges of Guidance Development"; click here for the second paper on "Guidance for Evidence-Informed Policies about Health Systems: Linking Guidance Development to Policy Development" and here for the final paper in this series, entitled "Guidance for Evidence-Informed Policies about Health Systems: Assessing How Much Confidence to Place in the Research Evidence".