McMaster Health Forum celebrates 15 years of providing timely demand-driven evidence support

A person wearing a dress shirt, tie and white lab coat with a stethoscope draped over their shoulders. In their hands is a tablet that has digital renderings of a globe and health-related symbols hovering above it.

Over the past 15 years, the McMaster Health Forum has supported efforts to address health and broader societal challenges using the best-available research evidence and experiences and insights from citizens, professionals, organizational leaders, and government policymakers.

To celebrate this milestone, Forum Director John Lavis reflected on our growth and impact in a brief interview. 

Q: What inspired you to launch the McMaster Health Forum? 

A: When we started in 2009, colleagues at McMaster asked why we were working with countries around the world but not here in Canada. We were open to it but didn’t initially see the demand for evidence that we saw in other countries. We decided to start offering our services here and the demand has just grown and grown. It’s been lovely to see the incredible shifts that have happened over the last decade-and-a -half in terms of people’s openness to using evidence, including at the highest levels of government.

Q: What changes have you seen in how governments are using evidence in decision-making? 

A: People in advisory and decision-making processes are much more receptive to using evidence and are now starting to ask for it. On the supply side, we can now move at the same speed as policy processes. The combination of the increase on the demand-side and the responsiveness and timeliness on the supply side have really opened up incredible opportunities for using evidence in decision-making.

Q: What changes have you seen in how everyday people use evidence? 

A: We’re seeing much more effort to communicate clearly to citizens about what we know, what we don’t know and how the evidence is evolving over time. There’s also much more interest in involving citizen-partners in asking and answering questions as part of teams like ours, so they’re helping to shape what evidence is being presented. On the other hand, we’re seeing a really big problem with misinformation. This is a really challenging landscape where you have people like us, and many others, trying to get the best evidence into the hands of citizens and then you have a lot of people sharing confusing messages – unintentionally or with the active intent of misleading people.

Q: How have the expectations of those using evidence changed? 

A: Those using evidence now expect that we can react quickly, while providing very high-quality work. Our new ultra-rapid evidence support approach can provide the best available evidence to those who need it in a matter of days. Another major change is the emergence of living evidence products – continuously updated summaries of what we’ve learned from around the globe and how it varies by groups and context. We started producing living evidence products during COVID-19, but I think they’re starting the become the new normal. 

Q: How will the production and use of evidence change over the next 15 years? 

A: The production and use of evidence has changed so much in the last three years that it’s so hard to think 15 years out. If I think of even about the next year or two, I believe that selected use of artificial intelligence will help us to speed up and improve the accuracy of certain aspects of our work. For example, AI could help to rank order research articles on a given topic by relevance so that our energy can be focused on studies more likely to provide high-information value rather than having to manually review thousands of articles. The other area where I anticipate that we’re going to see big changes is in the use of integrative products that bring together the different strands of evidence. Rather than having multiple products each addressing a specific element of the issue, these integrated products will bring these different research elements together in a more compelling way to inform decision-making by policymakers. 

Q: Any last thoughts? 

A: We’ve seen more progress in using evidence to address societal challenges in the last three years than at any time since the Forum was created 15 years ago. As we note in the Global Evidence Commission’s Update 2024, we’re seeing many signs across Canada and globally that momentum is building for the better and more systematic use of evidence. We look forward to continuing our work with our many partners and networks to further build this momentum and to make it the ‘new normal’ to use evidence to address societal challenges, both in routine times and in global crises. 

Watch the full interview for more insights from John Lavis on how the Forum has supported evidence-informed policymaking over the past 15 years and how it is building momentum to address societal challenges 

Read more in the Health Forum’s 15-year report 

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