Mapping the Qualitative Evidence Base on the Use of Research Evidence in Health Policy-Making: A Systematic Review

Document Type : Review Article


1 Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

2 Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Basel, Switzerland

3 University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland


The use of research evidence in health policy-making is a popular line of inquiry for scholars of public health and policy studies, with qualitative methods constituting the dominant strategy in this area. Research on this subject has been criticized for, among other things, disproportionately focusing on high-income countries; overemphasizing ‘barriers and facilitators’ related to evidence use to the neglect of other, less descriptive concerns; relying on descriptive, rather than in-depth explanatory designs; and failing to draw on insights from political/policy studies theories and concepts. We aimed to comprehensively map the global, peer-reviewed qualitative literature on the use of research evidence in health policy-making and to provide a descriptive overview of the geographic, temporal, methodological, and theoretical characteristics of this body of literature.
We conducted a systematic review following PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines. We searched nine electronic databases, hand-searched 11 health- and policy-related journals, and systematically scanned the reference lists of included sudies and previous reviews. No language, date or geographic limitations were imposed.
The review identified 319 qualitative studies on a diverse array of topics related to the use of evidence in health policy-making, spanning 72 countries and published over a nearly 40 year period. A majority of these studies were conducted in high-income countries, but a growing proportion of the research output in this area is now coming from low- and middle-income countries, especially from sub-Saharan Africa. While over half of all studies did not use an identifiable theory or framework, and only one fifth of studies used a theory or conceptual framework drawn from policy studies or political science, we found some evidence that theory-driven and explanatory (eg, comparative case study) designs are becoming more common in this literature. Investigations of the barriers and facilitators related to evidence use constitute a large proportion but by no means a majority of the work in this area.
This review provides a bird’s eye mapping of the peer reviewed qualitative research on evidence-to-policy processes, and has identified key features of – and gaps within – this body of literature that will hopefully inform, and improve, research in this area moving forward.


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Volume 11, Issue 7
July 2022
Pages 883-898
  • Receive Date: 08 May 2020
  • Revise Date: 06 October 2020
  • Accept Date: 06 October 2020
  • First Publish Date: 01 November 2020