Tools for upstream thinkers: 5 tips for effective policy briefs

madeleine-bondy.jpgby Madeleine Bondy, 2019 summer student at the Upstream Lab

Too often researchers are not reaching out to those in government. As a young researcher and future physician, I’m curious about how to best influence the policies that impact the social determinants of health. Translating research into action is a key part of our work at the Upstream Lab.

Policy briefs are documents used to inform political action and influence public policies. They are usually short 3-4-page documents, but can be as longer. The briefs summarize an issue and include a synthesis of research evidence with the purpose of orienting policy action.

In writing a brief it is important to include the purpose of the brief as well as the problem and current status, the context, key considerations and existing evidence, an overview of the solutions including pros and cons and then your policy recommendation.

5 tips to make policy briefs effective

1. Know your audience

Who  the brief for and how will they use? Consider your audience’s needs and expectations. What is on their mind, what are the questions they need answered today? You may need different versions of a brief for different audiences. For example, one written for a specialist audience may need to be longer (6 pages) than for one for non-specialists (2-4 pages).

2. Context matters

Consider how the policy brief fits into the overall context of your knowledge and sharing strategy. A policy brief may not always be the most appropriate tool for your purposes. Rather, a phone or in-person chat may be best, followed by a brief. Avoid viewing the brief as an end to itself, but rather part of a wider strategy.

3. Power and interest are paramount

Policy is formed at multiple levels, so take time to select the right group to share your research. Your organization may not be the most appropriate one to disseminate the results so you may need to build relationships with other organizations that are better positioned to reach your intended audience. To reach the general public, for example, it is usually best to engage the media, using social media and online platforms. The graphic below shows how it is important to think about organizations that have the power to either support or oppose the issue, and may have potential interest in your subject.

4. Policy briefs are a dialogue

A policy brief doesn’t contain every detail about a topic, but sparks a dialogue. The most effective briefs draw attention to a specific problem, provide a clear interpretation of the results and describe a limited number of actions to be taken. The greater amount of trust in the authors of the policy brief, the higher the likelihood that its recommendations will be well received.

5. Understand the potential and the limitations of briefs

Researchers should produce policy briefs but should also be realistic about the outcomes. Policy briefs are only one part of your knowledge-sharing strategy. Continue to look for policy windows to re-disseminate the brief (i.e. when political circumstances change).

Short, medium-length and long examples of policy briefs focused on the social determinants of health:

  • The Wellesley Institute published this 2-page brief in 2017 on the need for supportive housing in Ontario.
  • The Hispanic Health Council published this 22-page brief on how community health workers can help address social determinants
  • Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine published this 52-page brief on screening for social determinants in clinical settings.


Based in part on a webinar on how policy briefs can help bridge the research-to-policy gap, presented on June 19, 2019 by the National Collaborating Centre for Public Policy. Recording available here.

Published by Andrew Pinto

Dr. Andrew Pinto is the founder and director of The Upstream Lab. He is a Public Health and Preventive Medicine specialist and family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital. Dr. Pinto completed his residency at the University of Toronto and his Master’s in Health Policy, Planning and Financing at the London School of Economics and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as a Commonwealth Scholar. Currently, he is a Scientist in the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital and an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.

One thought on “Tools for upstream thinkers: 5 tips for effective policy briefs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: