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Applied Health Research Question program supports health system knowledge users

Image of Minnie Ho, a smiling Asian woman with glasses andlong brown har. Text reads: News story: ICES Applied Health Research Question program. Logo for Health Data Research Network Canada is at bottom.

“It’s the people behind the data that make the difference.” This is how Minnie Ho, Director of Data & Analytic Services at ICES Ontario, begins to tell the story of the Applied Health Research Questions (AHRQ) program. An initiative of the Ontario Ministry of Health, AHRQ was established a decade ago to help non-researchers access health data to inform planning, policy and program development. “Researchers, clinicians and staff all work together to come up with answers that will, ultimately, benefit the entire Ontario health system,” Ho explained. “It’s not just our research scientists and analytic staff who are involved. We have specialists in statistics, epidemiology, project and information management, knowledge translation, information security and privacy who support this program.”

ICES holds an inventory of linkable, individual-level health data, including much of the publicly-funded administrative health services records for the Ontario population since 1986. In addition to being a data custodian, ICES – an HDRN Canada member – leads cutting-edge studies that evaluate health care delivery and outcomes. Its core data repository contains a vast and secure array of Ontario’s health-related data, including population-based health surveys, patient records and clinical and administrative databases. Data are only made available to requestors after removal of identifying information.

“We strive to conduct research with impact so when we evaluate questions that come in through AHRQ, we ask: will evidence from this request improve the health care of Ontarians? And what is the impact – will it be broad or widespread?” ~ Minnie Ho

In addition to supporting hundreds of research projects each year undertaken by researchers across the province, ICES answers questions from health system policy makers and knowledge users who do not have the capacity to conduct their own research studies, but need evidence to guide their decisions. “In the beginning, answering questions for stakeholders was novel. Up to that point, our work was very investigator-driven,” Ho noted. Ten years later, with hundreds of AHRQ questions answered and shared publicly, the program has shown strong uptake. “Who is asking? The Ontario Ministry of Health, government agencies, hospitals, and community level organizations,” said Ho, adding that the Ministry of Health supports this program by providing ICES with a dedicated funding envelope for answering queries and supporting questions that come from stakeholders via AHRQ.

Not only has AHRQ demonstrated its utility, the questions answered through the program have influenced the health care system in meaningful ways. “We strive to conduct research with impact,” said Ho. “So, when we evaluate questions that come in through AHRQ, we ask: will evidence from this request improve the health care of Ontarians? And what is the impact – will it be broad or widespread?” This is exactly what happened with the question submitted to AHRQ by the Ministry of Health regarding the possibility of expanding pharmacist scope of practice. In 2023, the Ontario government announced it would broaden pharmacist services by increasing the number of common medical ailments pharmacists are allowed to prescribe medications for and treat. “The result of our research in this case was swift and impactful, alleviating health system pressures and improving care for Ontarians,” commented Ho. “The people behind the data helped do that!”

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