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A multiple case study of intersectoral public health networks: experiences and benefits of using research
© Kothari et al. 2016
Received: 9 October 2015
Accepted: 27 January 2016
Published: 11 February 2016
Network partnerships between public health and third sector organisations are being used to address the complexities of population level social determinants of health and health equity. An understanding of how these networks use research and knowledge is crucial to effective network design and outcome evaluation. There is, however, a gap in the literature regarding how public health networks use research and knowledge. The purpose of this paper is to report on the qualitative findings from a larger study that explored (1) the experiences of public health networks with using research and knowledge, and (2) the perceived benefits of using research and knowledge.
A multiple case study approach framed this study. Focus group data were collected from participants through a purposive sample of four public health networks. Data were analyzed using Framework Analysis and Nvivo™ software supported data management. Each network had the opportunity to participate in data interpretation.
All networks used published research studies and other types of knowledge to accomplish their work, although in each network research and knowledge played different but complementary roles. Neither research nor other types of knowledge were privileged, and an approach that blended varied knowledge types was typically used. Network experiences with research and knowledge produced individual and collective benefits. A novel finding was that research and knowledge were both important in shaping network function.
This study shifts the focus in the current literature from public health departments to the community setting where public health collaborates with a broader spectrum of actors to ameliorate health inequities. Both formal research and informal knowledge were found to be important for collaborative public health networks. Examining the benefits of research and knowledge use within public health networks may help us to better understand the relationships among process (the collaborative use of research and knowledge), structure (networks) and outcomes (benefits).
KeywordsDecision-making Health equity Health promotion Intersectoral Knowledge Networks Public health Public health systems Research Third sector organisations
The public health (PH) sector, mandated with protecting the community’s health through surveillance and population health assessment, disease and injury prevention, and health promotion and protection efforts, requires diverse partners such as government, the private sector, academia, and primary care. A key area of partnerships and collaborations is with the third sector, which can include organisations such as, but not limited to, non-governmental organisations, local associations, community groups, and charities. The third sector is uniquely positioned to address the social determinants of health for a variety of reasons. Many third sector organisations engage with the social determinants of health directly, sometimes called ‘social care’. For example, organisations support people struggling with the impacts of poverty, food insecurity, or gender-based violence [1, 2]. They often work with the most marginalized and stigmatized in society and, through this, have a targeted impact on reducing health inequities [2, 3]. Third sector organisations can also be very connected to the communities that they serve, which is useful in helping PH initiatives reach communities and build community collaborations [2, 3]. Furthermore, third sector organisations frequently engage in direct healthcare delivery (e.g. mental health services, care for the elderly) and health promotion (e.g. harm reduction for sexually transmitted infections and substance use, support for parents and young children). A scoping review of third sector activities in Scotland found that these organisations were vital in promoting a healthy population through active engagement in health policy, healthcare provision, and health promotion in the areas of children and parental wellbeing, substance use and sport .
While there are many forms that PH and third sector collaborations can take, an emerging and increasingly prevalent configuration is that of the PH network, which is formed between PH and third sector organisations [5–8]. Networks can be defined generally as “an arrangement of individuals and/or organizations that are linked through connections that range from informal relationships to formally agreed protocols” (, p.1). A review of related literature suggests that collaboration between people or organisations to achieve a shared objective that no partner can achieve alone, and the cooperation of autonomous organisations to provide programmes or address a common population health issue is at the heart of the definition and functioning of a network [10–12]. Some other noted characteristics of networks are that they work to achieve their collective vision and mission rather than only the priorities of their individual organisations, members cooperate as equals rather than operating in a hierarchical framework, and governance is less top-down and more based on mutual trust . It has been suggested that intersectoral collaboration between PH and third sector organisations is particularly amenable to a network approach because both types of organisations address large, complex issues that cannot be tackled alone. Networks break silos, encourage lateral relationships, and have the flexibility to generate creative collaborations to address these issues .
In order for these emerging collaborations to achieve a significant impact in PH and reduce health inequities, it is critical to understand how these partnerships and networks use knowledge. As the evidence-based practice movement has demonstrated, sound research is a cornerstone to developing and implementing effective programmes [14–16]. However, to date, little attention has been given to how PH and third sector collaborations, and PH networks in particular, use research and knowledge [14–16].
Research on the use of research in third sector organisations is only just emerging, but has already documented a number of barriers. A systematic scoping review of research and knowledge use in this sector in the United Kingdom revealed that, while third sector organisations were interested in using research to inform their initiatives, many were not able to implement this fully and, as a result, research was often used to satisfy funder requirements rather than contribute to programme development and improvement . Some organisations were constrained by limitations in time, staff expertise, material resources, ability to apply the research to their particular context, and an organisational culture that placed more value on experience and/or tacit knowledge than research knowledge . There are also well known barriers to using research in the PH sector, particularly among PH practitioners. A systematic review by Orton et al.  in 2011 of research use by over 1,300 local, regional, and national PH decision-makers in countries with universal healthcare coverage found that the extent to which they used research to inform PH decisions was not clear. Research was only seen as one source of knowledge and influence among other factors such as financial sustainability, strategic fit and pressure from stakeholders. The impact of research was indirect and competed against many other factors . Even when research is used, it is not always used in ways that are effective – there is some evidence for PH decision-makers using research to justify decisions that were already made, rather than informing the decision-making process [18, 19].
Given these trends in research and knowledge use among both the PH and the third sector, it is important to understand whether PH networks are effective structures for sharing research and different kinds of informal knowledge, since effective use of knowledge can contribute to favourable PH outcomes . As noted by others , community-based networks need to grapple with how to combine and evaluate diverse types of knowledge, or they may need to reconcile research-based guidance that is at odds with local needs. The goal of this study was to determine the extent to which networks are effective structures for research and knowledge sharing and utilization. In terms of operational definitions for this work, research was considered to be findings resulting from the systematic investigation of a phenomenon, using scientific principles, and knowledge was seen as information and ideas. The purpose of this paper is to report (1) the experiences of PH networks with using research and knowledge, and (2) the perceived benefits of using research and knowledge.
In this research, we used a multiple case study approach. Case study methodology supports the investigation of socially complex phenomena and its surrounding context, thereby providing a rich, holistic understanding of phenomena . Accordingly, each PH network was treated as an individual case. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected; the qualitative data were gathered using focus groups and the quantitative data were collected with social networking questionnaires designed to understand connections between people. In this paper, we focus primarily on the qualitative data related to research use; the social networking data will be reported on in a separate paper. Ethics approval was obtained from Research Ethics Boards at The University of Western Ontario and St. Frances Xavier University, and from study sites’ ethics review committees, where required. Standard procedures to ensure confidential and ethical protection of the participants and the study data were used, such as obtaining signed informed consent.
Networks were eligible to participate if they (1) addressed a population health or PH issue, (2) included at least two member organisations from the third sector, and (3) had members who were over 18 and spoke English. Networks that were diverse in terms of geographic area, membership size and level (local, regional, provincial) were selected purposefully. Networks were recruited through PH units, based on established relationships between research team members (AK, MM and CM) and the directors of PH units or equivalent in three Canadian provinces across the country for geographical diversity. Initial contact involved an e-mail to the director or equivalent of each organisational unit. Upon confirmation of interest, the director identified a network associated with the unit, and network members were invited to attend a preliminary information meeting with a team member to discuss project goals and assess interest in participation.
Data were collected from four networks (hereafter called Sites 1–4) between February and July 2011. At each site, network members attended a focus group and completed a series of questionnaires related to their connections with others in the network. The focus group moderator (DG, AK or CM) used open-ended questions to ask members about their experiences related to working in a network, how new knowledge came into the collaboration, and how this knowledge influenced decisions, including interacting with other individuals in the broader community. The Chair of the network had the opportunity to review and comment on the focus group guide in advance. As a result, the guide was adapted to the local network context and language based on the Chair’s recommendations . Focus groups were used to achieve a network-level response to the issues and lasted about 90 minutes.
Public health networks focus group coding framework
1.0 Functions of Network
1.1 Internal (functions to members)
1.1.1 Resource sharing
1.1.2 Ensuring member accountability to topic
1.1.3 Continuing professional development
1.1.4 Support + motivation
1.2 External (function in broader community)
1.2.1 Advocacy (in/direct)
1.2.2 Public outreach/intervention
1.2.3 Public education
2.0 Information Entry
2.1 Who (who brings info in)
2.1.1 Individual members
2.1.2 Expert consultant
2.2.1. Research literature
2.2.2. Experiential knowledge
2.2.3 Anecdotal evidence (community-based)
2.2.4. Network derived empirical data (survey, evaluation tool)
2.2.5. External empirical data (e.g. local stats)
2.3 How (tools/processes used)
2.3.1 Ad hoc (spontaneous conversation)
2.3.2 Electronic mailing
2.3.3. Personal emails
2.3.5. Face-to-face meetings
2.4.7 Online community interface
2.4.8 Literature review
2.4.9 Designated information distribution within network
2.4 Tools/processes desired/needed
2.4.1 Government connection
2.4.4 Diagnostic support
2.4.5. A1C tool
2.4.6 Academic connection to bring in research capacity
2.4.7 Full time staff to synthesize research
3.0 Information Influence on Network Function
3.1 Influence on individual network members
3.1.1 Clarify roles
3.2 Influence on network function
3.1.2. Influences members’ actions in their parent orgs
3.1.3 Helped identify skills
3.2.1 Increase collaboration between members
3.2.2 Focus topic interest
4.0 Conflict/Disagreement Within Network
4.1 Nature of disagreement/conflict
4.2.1 Use of consensus
4.2 Process by which it is resolved
4.2.2 Withdrawal of members
4.3 Impact on network
4.2.3 Respectful discussion
4.3.1 Improves network focus on issues
4.3.2 Improve network problem-solving processes
4.3.3 Provides a good debate
5.0 Barriers to Network Function
5.1.1 Network restrained by conservative learning of member organisation
5.1.2 General conservative political climate
5.2.1 Constraints on members’ time to look at new info
5.4 Information management
5.2.2 Constraints on members’ time to participate in network
5.5 Lack of common goals for network
5.3.1 Poor communication system between network members
5.4.1 Challenge of using existing tech (e.g. Sharepoint, Google docs)
5.4.2 Lack of an individual to help synthesize evidence
5.4.3 Difficulty not duplicating resources
5.5.1 Lack of consensus about overarching goal of network
5.5.2 Philosophical differences between members
5.5.2 Lack of consensus about role of network
5.6.1 Different jurisdictions represented (geography of network)
6.0 Facilitators to Network Function
6.1 Inter personal facilitators
6.1.1 Synergy among partners
6.2 Network-level facilitators
6.1.2 Frequent contact between members on other projects
6.3 External facilitators
6.1.3 Trust/respect between members
6.1.4 Common goals of members for network
6.2.1 Interdisciplinary nature of network
6.2.2 Network builds on existing relationships of member orgs
6.3.1 Context/location of network itself (e.g. big city: more info + funding potential)
6.3.2 Trust of communities that networks work with
7.0 Influence of Network on Members as Professionals
7.1.1 Personal (e.g. helps members broaden their perspectives, focus on ‘who they are’ in public health)
7.2 ‘Networked’ network
7.1.2 Professional (e.g. members get help, advice, feedback on ideas + new info about public health issues)
7.1.3 Community/context (e.g. deepens members understanding of issues in community)
7.2.1 Good experience for newer members to learn from others
7.2.2 Network good for making new contacts
7.2.3 Increased connection to community through network contacts
7.3.1 Reduces isolation in working on a difficult issue
7.3.2 Motivates members in their own work
8.0 Network Context
Unique narratives for each network
8.3 Everyday network activities
Site 1 characteristics
Site 1 was a provincial-level network that focused on population health, i.e. the social determinants of health and health inequities. The group acted as an informal think-tank, bringing together high level officials from various PH-related organisations (health, research and allied sectors) in the province to have strategic discussions around the inequities agenda, and exchange knowledge and information about what was happening in member organisations around this issue. This network began in 2006 in response to the recognition that there needed to be an explicit place to discuss population-based approaches to health. Because this group was self-directed, volunteer-based and existed as an entity apart from any particular organisation, it had a large amount of autonomy in determining its direction and priorities.
As of December 2010, its membership consisted of 28 members from various PH-related organisations in the province, including representation from government, planning bodies, alliances, universities and non-governmental agencies. Membership was somewhat fluid, as various people from other sectors were periodically invited into the network.
Site 2 characteristics
Site 2 was a small network that was action-focused on public outreach and education of vulnerable groups around a specific chronic condition. The network conducted frequent education sessions and screening for disease risk at English as a Second Language and French schools, reaching a large proportion of the immigrant population in Ontario city. The network was created in 2009 by three members who met at an annual conference and realized there was a large gap in condition-specific prevention services in their geographic area. The network was volunteer-based, i.e. not mandated by any particular organisation. From 2009 to the focus group conducted in June of 2011, the network was still in its pilot stage for its education and screening activities, and was periodically reflecting on and refining their processes.
The five members in this group represented three organisations: a regional PH organisation, a local community education programme and a national chronic conditions organisation. One member was an epidemiologist in charge of data management, while the other four members were in charge of coordination, execution and follow-up from events. Network members remained accountable to their member organisations and had to justify their involvement and time invested in this network’s activities.
Site 3 characteristics
Site 3 was a medium-sized voluntary network of 16 members whose objective was to improve communication, coordination and collaboration among organisations working toward enhancing active living in the region. The network was created as a result of a meeting between the PH department, the provincial department of health and community partners in response to low physical activity rates in the geographical area. The network has been active since 2009, and as of 2011 had representation from government at the local, regional and provincial levels as well as school boards, PH organisations and non-profit associations.
As of 2011, the network had created a strategic plan and two task groups, and had carried out multiple evaluations of its functioning and progress. It was in the process of carrying out public outreach and advocacy activities. For example, in 2011, the network focused on creating an active living/recreation database and website, and advocating for an active transportation plan with local government. The network also acted as a knowledge resource and networking source for members. New organisations were occasionally invited to join when the network felt that the organisation was a good fit with the network’s purpose and objectives. Decisions about membership were made by consensus within the network.
Site 4 characteristics
Site 4 was a regional-level, community-based, not-for-profit network organisation with 13 members. The network was founded in 2007. Its key purpose was to promote, support and advance sustainable development in the region. The network used a four-pillar approach (cultural, economic, environmental and social) to sustainability, considering each initiative in terms of these impacts. Part of the network’s mission was to support the area in becoming a model sustainable community through the engagement of its citizens. It worked with the community (e.g. through community engagement forums, brainstorming sessions) to determine priorities for sustainability initiatives, and then conducted research and advocacy on these topics.
Key activities of the network were carried out through Action Teams that were issue-specific coalitions around topics such as food security, poverty and the natural environment. The network also conducted educational activities and consultations in the areas of research, advocacy, economic innovation and leadership. The voluntary membership base was diverse, including representatives from civil society, businesses, cultural groups, PH and the broader health sector, and environmental organisations.
To share information, resources and work on activities that further population health and reduce inequities
To create awareness of an individual’s risk of developing a specific chronic condition and to provide follow-up to those individuals
To improve communication, coordination and collaboration among partners working toward improving and enhancing active living
To promote, support and advance sustainable development
Knowledge exchange and indirect advocacy
Service delivery through community outreach
Knowledge exchange, leadership and advocacy
Leadership and advocacy, partnership formation
Rural + Urban
Summary of findings
Experiences of PH networks using research & knowledge:
A range of knowledge sources used (explicit and tacit)
Knowledge used in a holistic, not hierarchical, fashion
Research and knowledge actively introduced/gathered by network members
Benefits of research & knowledge for PH networks:
Knowledge exchange transformed network functioning
Research & knowledge supported network activities
Research & knowledge focused the role of network
Research & knowledge central to purpose and function of network
Research & knowledge from network helps members in their professional roles
Research & knowledge from network helps members personally
Research & knowledge from network helps members understand community
Working together on research brings trust and knowledge of others’ skills
Findings are organised under the two main research purposes of understanding the (1) experiences of PH networks with using research and knowledge, and (2) perceived benefits of using research and knowledge. In each of these sections, we draw the reader into our interpretation of themes using guiding questions and illustrative quotes from participants.
Experiences of PH networks with using research and knowledge
How is research and knowledge obtained and used?
Although the four PH networks had very diverse structures and functions, all of them used a variety of forms of research and knowledge, ranging from formal scientific research articles to anecdotal community knowledge. The PH networks did not attempt to hierarchize research and knowledge; rather they were used in a holistic, blended way to meet the knowledge needs of the networks.
“For the most part, people have their own mechanisms for maintaining their knowledge base on population health research, so we haven’t really tried to do that here. It’s more of a strategic discussion around what people know.” (Site 1)
“And getting back to the [network name] model, we looked at some research of other similar kinds of models … so we had to decide: what was really feasible for the population that we were trying to reach and what was feasible in terms of the time we were going to put into it? …” (Site 2)
During public outreach activities, Site 2 used a combination of different types of knowledge to learn how to provide the best outreach possible. This knowledge came from community consultations to learn about barriers to healthy living, experiential knowledge about particular needs of the communities they served, and anecdotal knowledge in the form of spontaneous feedback from these communities about the outreach activities. The network also gathers community data directly using a survey administered to participants during outreach activities to track chronic disease risk and follow-up. Throughout the network’s activities, members consulted with guidelines and toolkits on best practices from their own organisations or external organisations (e.g. Health Canada), relevant research studies, and external consultations with PH experts when necessary.
“I guess we’re working on a lot of assumptions based on the evidence that we see in our daily work. I don’t know how much we’re like, “oh you got to see this evidence, I have this research.” We have our physical activity pieces of research that, I mean we’re not always talking about it, but we read it and we’re very familiar with it, and the understanding of our health stuff. We know this stuff. We kind of work not only through [network name] on those but kind of through all of our daily activities, they’re always research based…no, we’re not always bringing up research here at the table.” (Site 3)
“And I think our discussions around multi levels, like the conceptual: what is the sustainability? what is a sustainable lifestyle? what would that look like in [city name]? It’s also I think what are the different pragmatic options? So we’re relying on some scientific expertise you know, is it windmills? Is it geothermal? …so we’re researching that and we’re also researching models of social change. So I think we spend a lot of time talking about how does change occur and then we also do a social analysis of the community, like where can we push to make change? Where are there blockages to change? So I think it’s conceptual levels. It’s at different sort of information and scientific knowledge levels. It’s also that sort of relational circles of influence knowledge.” (Site 4)
Benefits of research and knowledge for PH networks
How does research and knowledge use affect network functioning?
“I think that we probably had at the very beginning some thoughts about being a network that undertook to do things, but I think more and more, it is the exchange of knowledge and the ideas and people … so it’s a network that brings together people from a whole bunch of different organizations who then can go out and do things. The network itself probably isn’t structured or funded or resourced, or whatever to actually do … but certainly it brings together people to talk and then the other organizations can carry out or work on the areas…” (Site 1)
“…often times what I find is that the level of discussion and information that is shared at the meeting actually allows people to tailor it then to whatever their mandate or how they can actually advance the agenda from their sector’s perspective.” (Site 1)
“…I think the CanRisk tool was a real good find for [network name] in terms of okay, yea, this is best practice, it’s statistically validated in Europe over a ten year study, and it’s gained the attention of the Public Health Agency of Canada, and they’re doing a pilot study in 13 sites across Canada, and it’s the best tool…” (Site 2)
The statistical data on participant demographics and risk levels collected during outreach activities also helped to tailor the ongoing activities of the network. At the time of this study, aggregate data analysis was taking place to help the network determine its impact and plan for the future.
“I thought that exercise too around trying to acquire more information on active transportation was a good assessment of who’s got capacity, in terms of human resources, to dedicate time to do additional research, and even fiscal resources to acquire that knowledge … we identified who else is out there trying to collect information, or already has the data, … let’s make sure we don’t duplicate.” (Site 3)
“To some extent it’s the nature of the organization in that it looks for information and it’s a relatively new topic, sustainability …it’s an inherently complex system so you cannot look at one piece on its own, in its own definitive way. So if the need to gather information disappeared then you could frankly retire from being chair and we can close up the board and do something else.” (Site 4)
“Next Thursday night we’re all getting together in special suits and white paint buckets and we’re going to paint the bike lines because all of our research didn’t go anywhere with it.” (Site 4)
How does research and knowledge use benefit individual members?
“This group’s been critical to me in terms of very intelligent knowledgeable people sitting around the table, giving feedback and suggestions on all of those things, so whenever something like that comes up, bringing it to the [network name] is the first thing I think of, in terms of getting a lot of useful and helpful advice and reactions to it, so that’s been the biggest role of the [network name]. In terms of my work, it’s a group that I can bring this stuff to and get really knowledgeable feedback.” (Site 1)
Another member described how, through the process of working together, people developed an awareness of each other’s skill sets and areas of expertise. Finally, someone at Site 3 mentioned that, since subgroups worked together on research, a deeper level of trust among members was developed.
“Well, I don’t know, the only thing I could say is that I think in a way it helps define who you are as a professional because there isn’t any professional discipline of population health inequities champion…” (Site 1)
“What I was thinking about is that there aren’t a lot of forums where you actually bring together a variety of different sectors and a variety of different content experts that really allow us to address some of the issues of public health that require that real collaborative effort … I find that the level of discussion and information that is shared at the meeting actually allows people to tailor it then to whatever their mandate or how they can actually advance the agenda from their sector’s perspective.” (Site 1)
“I got my own business, and the knowledge gained here is applicable in an economic sense. We’re fostering relationships. We’re just keeping an eye on cutting edge technologies that I might want to go and involve my own business with. It’s very helpful.” (Site 4)
“…I’m in community development. That’s kind of a professional practice and so for me what’s really exciting is to see the sharing of the knowledge, the thinking about this as a collaborative effort. How can we share our resources and do a better job of moving this forward, which doesn’t mean we all keep doing what we’re doing at home, but how can we keep moving this forward so it helps to strengthen from my perspective the communities that we live in…?” (Site 3)
Collaborations between PH departments and third sector organisations have been put forward as a way to address the complex issue of health inequities. There is a gap in the literature, however, about how research and knowledge are used in these collaborative network structures. Four PH networks were examined to understand their experiences in using research and knowledge, and the benefits perceived therein (Table 7).
The first important finding from this study was that all networks used published research studies and other types of knowledge to accomplish their work. Research and information played different but complementary roles: in some cases research was used to provide context or select interventions, while in others, knowledge was used to understand research findings. Sources of knowledge ranged from locally-derived evaluations and data, to guest speakers and colleagues. The analysis also identified varied types of knowledge, including organisational, anecdotal, political, experiential, content-related and knowledge about how different content areas influence each other. A recent scoping review to understand the types of knowledge and evidence that PH decision-makers use aligns with these findings. Developing a typology of tacit and explicit knowledge, Boyko , in 2004, further categorized explicit knowledge as expert-based, locally-derived or formalized. Tacit knowledge was found to be either experiential or emotional . Other studies support the finding that tacit or informal knowledge is an important input for identifying programmatic solutions for PH issues [27, 28]. Longstanding discussions about the multiplicity of knowledge types and their application are also prevalent in other fields (e.g. education  and psychology ). What is most important to understand through future studies, however, is when PH networks use different knowledge types, for which types of decisions and why.
The analysis also pointed out that neither research nor other types of knowledge were privileged over the other. This finding is incongruent with the general trend in the health sector to assign primacy to systematic reviews derived from randomized controlled trials based on the hierarchies of evidence paradigm. However, in their extensive ethnographic study of primary care clinicians, Gabbay and le May  found that practitioners and teams developed ‘mindlines’ to guide practice rather than using research. These mindlines were constructed as a composite of research, experience, tacit knowledge and information from opinion leaders and others. These knowledge types were holistically negotiated and individually embodied but collectively reinforced through interactions with peers. Our study hints at a similar process given the blended approach of varied knowledge types. Further, the network infrastructure supports social interactions that are characteristic of mindlines; the network facilitates on-going contributions, discussions, group reflections and learnings such that a shared understanding of the network topic is built. In a recent systematic review of the mindlines concept the authors put forth that “…mindlines can be accurate and useful in a local setting, and provide useful predictions, despite not being construed according to … the EBM [evidence-based medicine] paradigm” (, p.8). The authors also raise the point, however, that controlling knowledge creation through the nurturing of a network may not even be possible. At the very least, we suggest that researchers and practitioners might shift their terminology from ‘evidence-based practice’ to ‘evidence-informed practice’ or ‘knowledge-based practice’ to more accurately reflect PH activity.
Another important finding from this study was that research and knowledge were important in shaping the function of the networks. The idea that knowledge creation, acquisition and sharing might have a prominent role to play in how a network carries out its work is not well understood in the larger networks literature. Research has mostly been focused on understanding how network structures or relationships between network members achieve knowledge outcomes such as generating or adopting knowledge . Our study extends this view, and suggests that future studies ought to focus on understanding how knowledge flow, or how the properties of knowledge, have an impact on network function. With this understanding those who can provide research and knowledge, such as university partners or PH departments, can support optimal network performance. This finding also has implications for the field of knowledge translation where current strategies being implemented in the practice setting do not consider the influence of research use on unit function.
The last important finding from this study speaks directly to PH practice: network experiences with research and knowledge produced individual and collective benefits. These benefits might be seen as evidence that, as Popay et al. discuss, PH networks are “…opening up new spaces within local systems for public health work…” (, p. 339). When speaking about population health and equity issues in particular, collaborative cross-sectoral work is imperative for progress, and networks might be one example of how to do this. The PH collaborative literature tends to centre on community development with the characteristic of keeping groups and community members continuously engaged. The network approach, however, is more flexible in that it allows for an ebb and flow of membership, as needed. Our study also demonstrated some integration of PH activity with research, further supporting the argument that PH organisations might consider additional investment in these inter-organisational structures to support the sharing of the diverse knowledge required to tackle the challenge of health inequities.
Findings from this work need to be considered in light of study limitations. The low response rates at Sites 1 and 4 suggest that the findings from those two networks may not reflect a true aggregate response, however a diversity of views were expressed given the different network profiles. We acknowledge that those who did participate might be more likely to express positive experiences related to their network. Further, the study design does not permit uncovering insights about experiences with research and knowledge over time; only a cross-sectional snapshot of network activity is reported here. Strengths of this work included using a pragmatic analytical technique – framework analysis – that supported team analysis, the participation of diverse networks across the country to capture a range of perspectives, and the inclusion of a process to include network members in a discussion about findings, adding credibility to the interpretations.
This study adds to the growing body of work in the area of PH and the use of research for decision-making. This study demonstrated that both formal research (peer-reviewed or locally-based) and informal knowledge are important in collaborative and cross-sectoral networks. Our study setting expands the usual approach of focusing on PH departments, and moves the discussion to the community where PH works closely with other third sector organisations. By shifting this focus we hope to encourage other researchers to also consider the broader spectrum of actors who work with knowledge to do PH work and improve the population’s health.
This study also adds to the networks and communities of practice literatures. The analysis demonstrated that research and knowledge influenced the function of the networks. We also demonstrated that benefits, both at the network and individual level, were identified in participant discussions about research and knowledge. This line of inquiry is exciting, and opens up areas of investigation to further understand the relationship among process (the collaborative use of research and knowledge), structure (networks) and outcomes (benefits).
This study was funded through an operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) (FRN: 103505). Anita Kothari is supported through a new investigator award from CIHR. Charmaine McPherson held a postdoctoral fellowship award from the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation and CIHR when this study was initiated. Marjorie MacDonald held a CIHR Applied Public Health Chair that supported her work on this project. Selma Tobah provided manuscript formatting assistance.
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