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A prospective multiple case study of the impact of emerging scientific evidence on established colorectal cancer screening programs: a study protocol



Health-policy decision making is a complex and dynamic process, for which strong evidentiary support is required. This includes scientifically produced research, as well as information that relates to the context in which the decision takes place. Unlike scientific evidence, this "contextual evidence" is highly variable and often includes information that is not scientifically produced, drawn from sources such as political judgement, program management experience and knowledge, or public values. As the policy decision-making process is variable and difficult to evaluate, it is often unclear how this heterogeneous evidence is identified and incorporated into "evidence-based policy" decisions. Population-based colorectal cancer screening poses an ideal context in which to examine these issues. In Canada, colorectal cancer screening programs have been established in several provinces over the past five years, based on the fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or the fecal immunochemical test. However, as these programs develop, new scientific evidence for screening continues to emerge. Recently published randomized controlled trials suggest that the use of flexible sigmoidoscopy for population-based screening may pose a greater reduction in mortality than the FOBT. This raises the important question of how policy makers will address this evidence, given that screening programs are being established or are already in place. This study will examine these issues prospectively and will focus on how policy makers monitor emerging scientific evidence and how both scientific and contextual evidence are identified and applied for decisions about health system improvement.


This study will employ a prospective multiple case study design, involving participants from Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. In each province, data will be collected via document analysis and key informant interviews. Documents will include policy briefs, reports, meeting minutes, media releases, and correspondence. Interviews will be conducted in person with senior administrative leaders, government officials, screening experts, and high-level cancer system stakeholders.


The proposed study comprises the third and final phase of an Emerging Team grant to address the challenges of health-policy decision making and colorectal cancer screening decisions in Canada. This study will contribute a unique prospective look at how policy makers address new, emerging scientific evidence in several different policy environments and at different stages of program planning and implementation. Findings will provide important insight into the various approaches that are or should be used to monitor emerging evidence, the relative importance of scientific versus contextual evidence for decision making, and the tools and processes that may be important to support challenging health-policy decisions.

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