RWJF Year in Research: An Interview with David C. Colby

The vice president of Research and Evaluation at RWJF talks about the value of research and the Final 5 Most Influential Research Articles for 2012.

    • February 28, 2013

One of the most important things that bring all of these winners together is that they’ve hooked a research issue to a social issue that’s much bigger than the article itself."

David C. Colby, PhD, vice president, Research and Evaluation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


Looking at this year’s Final 5 and previous winners, what are some of the key ingredients in the most influential research projects?

One of the most important ingredients is that these projects are looking at solutions to practical problems. The research around OpenNotes, for example, is addressing the pressing issue of how can we engage the patient more in his or her own care. The second ingredient is they’ve generally come out at a time when the issue is also a very public one. For example, the article looking at Medicare coordinated care programs is tied closely to the Accountable Care Act and at a time when a lot of money is being invested in new types of health care organizations. It helps policy-makers and providers to learn about what works and what doesn’t.

What are some of the key ingredients in really effective dissemination and outreach?

I think the first thing we need to do is develop research that’s “just in time” —producing it in a way that will allow us to capitalize on a significant policy event, and delivering it in a way that makes it easy for the audiences to put it to use when they need it. We also need to think early on about why a piece of research is important to policy-makers, or to practitioners or the general public—and write it in a way that reaches these audiences, so it’s relevant and in their language.

In this year’s Final 5, a good example of this is the study looking at New Jersey’s Graduated Driving Law—the first in the nation to require novice drivers to display small decals on their license plates. Because of how it was timed, it was able to help inform not just the implementation of the law—but also a debate around similar laws in other states. I’d also point to the research looking at physician’s wages in states with an expanded scope of practice for nurses. Right now, there is a policy debate about this issue which is about who controls the delivery of care, who is paid for it, and how much they get paid. This article speaks to policy-makers, and to nurses and physicians who are dealing with this issue.

What are some other elements of these research projects that really stand out?

One of the most important things that bring all of these winners together is that they’ve hooked a research issue to a social issue that’s much bigger than the article itself. They helped solve a piece of that puzzle for people. A terrific example of this is the study looking at how “cybercycling”—a combination of traditional exercise bikes with virtual technology—might be a way to help prevent or delay dementia. This is strong research that involves an innovative area, and a deep family issue that most of us experience in some way. I think some of the studies were also very well thought out in terms of thinking about what policy-makers need.

Taking a look back at your time with RWJF, what are one or two research projects that immediately come to mind as having been particularly successful, and why?

One that immediately comes to mind is the study by Beth McGlynn and her colleagues at the RAND Corporation about the quality of care in which they’ve found that adults and children in the United States, on average, were only getting recommended care about 55 percent of time, basically a flip of the coin. That provided evidence that we have a long way to go in terms of improving quality of care, and raised it as a very important area of work for both the Foundation and for the nation as a whole.

A second area is the research we funded on tobacco policy, showing that increases in taxes were influential in driving down smoking rates, and were especially strong in influencing teenagers who were just starting to smoke. I would also point to our tobacco policy research on the impact of clean indoor air laws. These laws both protected people who weren’t smoking and also made it culturally unacceptable to smoke—and had a great influence on, again, driving down smoking rates in the United States.

What emerging areas of research do you see a particular need for or are particularly excited about moving forward?

The thing that excites me most is not a research project, but the discussion around what people call “big data.” The instantaneous data that’s coming off devices—off sensors, our cell phones, our physical activity devices—is created for other reasons, but can be analyzed for important health purposes. This I think is not only going to revolutionize health and health care, but how we do research. It’s going to provide us new clues about population health and open the door to new types of prevention efforts and interventions.

2012 Most Influential Research Articles

RWJF announces the Final 5 winners.

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