Demystifying research translation

A consistent finding in health and medical research is the failure to translate research into useful and usable services in practice and policy (Grimshaw et al.), and that the process is often “slow and haphazard”. There is increasing evidence of the limited translation of research with one review finding an average time of 17 years to move 14% of research into clinical practice (Morris et al.). Another review suggested that an estimated 30% to 45% of patients within the United States and the Netherlands are not receiving care according to scientific evidence and that 20% to 25% of the care provided is not needed or is potentially harmful. Additionally, reviews of research wastage have highlighted several areas where KT would act to improve outcomes and reduce the reported wastage of research (See my previous blog about this). Moves to improve the movement of research evidence into health and medical practice have been increasing over the last decade, which has seen a plethora of models, terminology, and definitions focusing on bridging the research to practice gap.

What on earth is Research Translation?

But, what is translation? In Australia, our funders and research organisations have pretty much chosen to use the term research translation, rather than more globally accepted terminology such as knowledge translation, knowledge transfer and exchange, research utilisation and so on. The debate on terminology is wide and ongoing, so let’s not get caught up in that. Rather, let’s take a look at what “Research Translation” is. This in itself is a  little difficult since there is no formal definition of research translation in Australia. Therefore, we should draw on the widely used and accepted terminology and definitions used internationally.

The World Health Organisation defines knowledge translation (KT) as:

“The synthesis, exchange, and application of knowledge by relevant stakeholders to accelerate the benefits of global and local innovation in strengthening health systems and improving people’s health.” 

KT is sometimes confused with or thought of as dissemination, communication, commercialisation, technology transfer, or continuing medical education. However, it is important to conceptualise what is meant by the term knowledge translation as a system rather than to continue debate on terminology and differences in meaning. KT is the process of moving knowledge into action through information and evidence exchange between knowledge producers and knowledge users (Mitton et al.). It is the middle, meeting ground between two fundamentally different processes: those of research and those of action (Campbell et al.) with the primary purpose of increasing the chance of research evidence being used in policy and practice and for the identification of relevant research questions (Mitton et al.). Importantly, there is a consensus that KT is a social, non-linear process, that has its foundations in relationships.

What about Translational Research?

To add to the confusion, especially among Australian funders and researchers, the terms research translation and translational research are used interchangeably. I would like to highlight here that these are two different concepts, and it is important to understand the difference.

“Translational research could be regarded as any type of research that leads to knowledge translation”, it is considered to be research that has a high capacity for translation and that addresses existing gaps in translation (Davidson 2011). For most, translational research is research into the methods of translation, however, for others, translational research is the movement of knowledge from bench to bedside, such as that of a clinical trial. As you can ascertain, both research translation and translational research mean different things to different people, all the more reason that we should use a definition for each.

There you have a quick overview of two common terms that are being thrown around the Australian research and research funding sector. Next time you are talking to someone about translation, ask them what they think it is and the term they use to describe it.