Translating research for better diabetes policies: a multistakeholder workshop

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December 18, 2023
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In order to inform the upcoming WHO’s prioritised diabetes research agenda, a workshop co-organised by the GSPI brought together a wide range of stakeholders in Geneva to collaborate on leveraging knowledge on diabetes amongst policymakers and improving national and international science-policy ecosystems.

In 2021 and 2022, the diabetes scientific community celebrated a century since the discovery and the first use of insulin. While these milestones changed the outlook of type 1 diabetes from being a death sentence to a manageable chronic condition, it was also an occasion to acknowledge that many people with diabetes still lack access to this life-saving medicine. According to the World Health Organization, about 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, predominantly in low-and middle-income countries (LMIC). Nearly 1.5 million deaths are directly attributed to diabetes each year.

While significant strides have been made in understanding this non-communicable disease (NCD), there exists a noticeable gap between scientific knowledge and its effective implementation in policy and practice, especially in LMICs. Compounded by the fact that much of the research stems from high-income countries (HIC), the applicability of this knowledge to LMIC settings remains limited. Acknowledging this disparity, the World Health Assembly recognised in 2021, via Resolution 74.4, the need for action, launching the Global Diabetes Compact. This initiative aims to develop an inclusive, scientifically robust global research agenda that resonates with policymakers in health systems across the globe.

In 2022, the University of Geneva in cooperation with the WHO and the University of Sydney received a grant from GSPI’s collaboration programme to develop a global diabetes prioritised research agenda in response to a call from the Global Diabetes Compact. The consultations conducted with key informants to build this agenda also enabled them to identify the main barriers to the translation of diabetes research into policies. 

Four key issues surfaced: the lack of knowledge of diabetes, especially in non-health policymakers; the need for strategies to make a specific issue such as diabetes a priority on the research agenda; the challenge of getting policymakers’ attention; and the need for more interactions between policymakers and scientists.

Messages and messengers: getting knowledge to policymakers

On 30 November 2023, the project partners organised a workshop in Geneva, convening 35 participants – researchers, policymakers, diabetes healthcare professionals, research funders and other relevant stakeholders from 21 countries – to brainstorm innovative strategies for addressing these challenges and enhancing science-policy interactions on both national and international scales.

“The workshop underlines that it is a propitious time to be working on diabetes,” said David Beran, project lead and organiser of the workshop, researcher and lecturer at the University of Geneva within the Division of Tropical and Humanitarian Medicine. “One challenge remains to translate the knowledge into local action. Although we talk about the diabetes agenda, the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes are such that these need to be considered differently from both the research and policy perspectives. Both are complex health issues and, although there is a need to simplify messages for policymakers, we as researchers should not shy away from this complexity, but rather work on how to communicate it.“

Discussions at the workshop underscored the significance of local data not only in shaping local solutions but also in contributing to the global agenda. This local comprehension was deemed essential for co-creating solutions with local partners. Participants stressed however that for knowledge to have an influence on policy, it is important to take into consideration the interests and agendas of various stakeholders beyond the problem of diabetes itself, from local policymakers and health professionals, up to the highest levels of national governments.

“There exists a lot of data on diabetes, including on expenditure and treatment at the country and hospital level, but this data is not used by policymakers,” said Baktygul Akkazieva, Health Systems Analyst at the WHO office in Barcelona, who took part in the workshop. I think the main reason is that when researchers are producing knowledge, they use a language that is not understandable by the policymakers. Moreover, quite often policymakers just don't have time to listen and to read all the research. So we need to translate it into key messages and to provide them with feasible solutions.” 
Snapshot from the group discussions at the workshop.

Significant discussions at the meeting revolved around messaging and messengers. Participants deliberated on who should be involved in knowledge translation and the role of knowledge brokers. Consensus emerged that researchers might not always be the optimal candidates for these roles; different contexts might require various actors to fulfil these pivotal functions. Participants also discussed the potential benefits of creating knowledge translation platforms with specific skills and legitimacy to facilitate knowledge exchange among diabetes stakeholders.

A new knowledge translation platform on diabetes 

The outcomes of the workshop will complement the data already collected in 2023 and enable to articulate recommendations for the implementation of a prioritised research agenda on diabetes, which will be launched in early 2024.

By harnessing the expertise of these stakeholders to effectively translate research findings into tangible policy actions, the goal of this workshop was not only to shape the WHO's prioritised research agenda and support its implementation, but also to inform the work of the newly created NCD Policy Lab based at the University of Geneva and supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. This platform will work to translate the science generated through collaboration with partners from four different countries into usable tools that aim to increase research uptake by policymakers. The Lab will also organise tailored meetings for specific audiences and foster capacity building for scientists to better communicate their research and for policymakers to apprehend scientific approach and results. 

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