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The field of implementation research is growing, but it is not well understood despite the need for better research to inform decisions about health policies, programmes, and practices. This article focuses on the context and factors affecting implementation, the key audiences for the research, implementation outcome variables that describe various aspects of how implementation occurs, and the study of implementation strategies that support the delivery of health services, programmes, and policies. We provide a framework for using the research question as the basis for selecting among the wide range of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods that can be applied in implementation research, along with brief descriptions of methods specifically suitable for implementation research. Expanding the use of well designed implementation research should contribute to more effective public health and clinical policies and programmes.
Defining implementation research
Implementation research attempts to solve a wide range of implementation problems; it has its origins in several disciplines and research traditions (supplementary table A). Although progress has been made in conceptualising implementation research over the past decade,1 considerable confusion persists about its terminology and scope.2–,4 The word “implement” comes from the Latin “implere,” meaning to fulfil or to carry into effect.5 This provides a basis for a broad definition of implementation research that can be used across research traditions and has meaning for practitioners, policy makers, and the interested public: “Implementation research is the scientific inquiry into questions concerning implementation—the act of carrying an intention into effect, which in health research can be policies, programmes, or individual practices (collectively called interventions).”
Implementation research can consider any aspect of implementation, including the factors affecting implementation, the processes of implementation, and the results of implementation, including how to introduce potential solutions into a health system or how to promote their large scale use and …
Contributors All authors contributed to the conception and design, analysis and interpretation, drafting the article, or revising it critically for important intellectual content, and all gave final approval of the version to be published. NT had the original idea for the article, which was discussed by the authors (except OA) as well as George Pariyo, Jim Sherry, and Dena Javadi at a meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO). DHP and OA did the literature reviews, and DHP wrote the original outline and the draft manuscript, tables, and boxes. OA prepared the original figure. All authors reviewed the draft article and made substantial revisions to the manuscript. DHP is the guarantor.
Funding Funding was provided by the governments of Norway and Sweden and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in support of the WHO Implementation Research Platform, which financed a meeting of authors and salary support for NT. DHP is supported by the Future Health Systems research programme consortium, funded by DFID for the benefit of developing countries (grant number H050474). The funders played no role in the design, conduct, or reporting of the research.
Competing interests All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf and declare: support for the submitted work as described above; NT and TA are employees of the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research at WHO, which is supporting their salaries to work on implementation research; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.
Provenance and peer review: Invited by journal; commissioned by WHO; externally peer reviewed.