Network lead – Frank de Vocht (University of Bristol)
Network members –
Prof Russ Jago (University of Bristol)
Dr Cheryl McQuire (University of Bristol)
Prof Christopher Millett (Imperial College London)
Dr Anthony Laverty (Imperial College London)
Prof Steven Cummins (LSHTM)
Dr Rachael Hunter (University College London)
Prof Martin White (University of Cambridge)
Purpose of network
It is important to evaluate the impact of new public health policies or other population-level interventions, so that decisions can be made about whether these policies or other interventions do what they were “intended to do” or, alternatively, whether their delivery should be amended or even discontinued.
The preferred study design to study the impact of such interventions has traditionally been the (randomized) controlled trial, but where this is not possible public health researchers tend to rely on alternative standard epidemiological designs such as cohort analyses, timeseries analyses or cross-sectional comparisons. An alternative formal formulation of the evaluation design for the evaluation of such interventions, developed mostly in economics, is that of quasi-experiments, or natural experiments. This design describes the use of observational data together with knowledge about the allocation and implementation of a policy or other intervention to obtain stronger inferences about the impact of these interventions than observational studies alone can.
Natural/quasi experiments have recently also become popular in public health; especially because they facilitate the use of routine data to evaluate the impact of new policies. However, these designs and their analysis are generally not, or only to a limited amount, covered in public health and epidemiology courses. As a result, public health academics, as well as practitioners, are insufficiently aware of their benefits (and limitations) compared to other evaluation designs.
The primary purpose of the network therefore, is to provide a forum for public health academics, students, and practitioners to learn about natural/quasi experimental designs as an alternative to current evaluation practices, their benefits and limitations, and enable the discussion of how there are best implemented, analysed, interpreted and reported.
A secondary purpose in the first year of the network, is to act as an expert forum for development of the SPHR/NIHR/MRC Natural Experiment Guidance that will be developed as part of SPHR Places & Communities WP3.
Aims & objectives of the network
The aims of the network are to:
1. raise awareness of natural/quasi experimental designs as an alternative to randomized controlled trials or evaluations based on standard observational evaluation designs for public health academics, students, and practitioners.
2. provide a forum to discuss the benefits and limitations of natural experiments for the evaluation of public health interventions.
3. provide an expert forum to present and discuss methods to analyse natural experiments in the context of (local) public health, with the aim of improving their identification, analysis and reporting.
4. create the infrastructure for a network of experts (SPHR and beyond) to connect, discuss methodological issues and developments, and discuss potential future natural experiments with the aim of forming collaborations to apply for external research funding.
The network aligns with the main aim of the SPHR to ‘increase the evidence base for cost-effective public health practice’ by specifically focussing on new methodologies to conduct evaluations of public health interventions. Aligned with the School’s aims it will do this by directly addressing the objectives of SPHR to:
1. Conduct applied public health research to increase the volume and quality of useful evidence on cost-effective interventions.
2. Create an environment where first class applied public health research, focussed on the needs of the public, can thrive.
3. Support local public health practitioners and policy makers to engage with research, and actively seek out high quality research evidence to inform their decisions by inviting them to the Network or to specific topical meetings.
4. To contribute to ongoing efforts to build research capacity in public health research by providing additional training in natural experiments and their use in public health.
If you would like to join the network, please contact Frank de Vocht.