At the end of June, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the Annual Research Meeting (ARM) hosted by AcademyHealth, which is the leading national professional organization aimed at advancing health services research and health policy. Nearly 3,000 researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and students came together for a 3-day conference that showcased the latest research in the field and sparked critical discussions about improving our health care system. As an undergraduate, it was an opportunity to not only gain health policy knowledge but also network with professionals from across the country and learn more about potential career pathways. Here are five key takeaways I gained from the conference:
Health services research is vast and diverse
When I walked into the opening session, I was immediately struck by the palpable energy in the space. Thousands of people filled the massive ballroom, chattering around hundreds of round tables. Research can often be an isolating pursuit, so it was heartening to see so many people gathered together in one space to discuss a common goal: improving our healthcare system. People approached this shared vision differently – some focused on payment reform, others on patient safety, improving consumer choice, addressing social determinants of health, etc. Sometimes the different conversations felt disparate, but it was also a reflection of the nature of the complex problems we face. We need efforts driving in multiple directions in order to effect overall change.
Collaboration is critical
A ubiquitous practice that I noted was that speakers started off by acknowledging their co-authors, usually by showing a slide with anywhere between four to eight names and their affiliations. Most of the time, these collaborators came from varying academic backgrounds and even different institutions. It was a clear representation that in today’s research environment, no single person can do it alone – different perspectives and expertise are essential to designing and executing studies that meaningfully address relevant issues (which usually requires thinking across disciplinary boundaries). Plus, collaborating with other talented and dedicated individuals can make the research process more motivating and rewarding.
Research is often incremental and inconclusive
In addition to acknowledging their collaborators, many of the presenters would follow a similar arc: they would begin with a convincing explanation of the relevance of the research question, then walk through an impressive amount of complex methodology and statistical analyses – often to conclude that the results were not significant or generalizable and that more research needs to done. This would sometimes feel like a disappointment, but it was also a stark reminder that even the best researchers in the field can rarely provide definitive, clear-cut answers to thorny issues. Research can be frustratingly slow, but it’s because we all recognize the importance of high-quality, evidence-based work. Humility and integrity need to be at the forefront of academic work, since promoting overhyped conclusions or informing policy decisions on shaky evidence could be potentially dangerous. We need to ensure that when we present our work, it is appropriately contextualized and qualified with all of its limitations, instead of sweeping them under the rug.
We have to think beyond the academic journal
Another major recurring discussion during the conference was about dissemination strategies in the research process. When I first became a research assistant, I made an implicit connection between publishing in a high-impact academic journal and making a tangible impact in society. I eventually learned that this was not the case; many articles get published, only to disappear into the black void of the internet. Health services researchers have to think beyond simply performing the research – dissemination, translation, implementation, and evaluation are all critical (and labor-intensive) phases in the pathway from discovery to impact. Especially in the policy arena, researchers need to think strategically about the informational pathways to reach key stakeholders in order to create actionable policy recommendations.
The field is rife with opportunity
Despite these challenges, I left the conference energized about future opportunities. The professionals I met showed me that a health career could be multi-faceted; a person could be a researcher, clinician, policymaker, and advocate, all in one. As a student of both science and policy, it was exciting to recognize the possibility of pursuing a fruitful career at the intersection of all of these important domains. Additionally, the endless array of poster topics and speaker presentations throughout the three days demonstrated the magnitude of opportunities to engage in health services research, as well as the extensive community working collectively to improve our health care system. These realizations helped me to feel even more confident about my decision to pursue a career in health care, knowing that I was entering a field exemplified by constant variety, meaningful work, and passionate individuals.
Gary Wang is 2016 Huang Fellow studying Neuroscience and Health Policy, with a minor in Chemistry. Being a Huang Fellow has allowed him to explore his passions and think critically about the social and ethical impacts of scientific discovery.