Lou Hall is evaluation lead at the South West Academic Health Science Network, where she supports people across the health and charity sectors to evaluate services, projects and initiatives.
In her blog, Lou explores how evaluation doesn’t have to be laborious.
‘I don’t know where to start’ …‘I don’t have time’ …’I don’t know how’ …‘Evaluation? Eek!’
These are just some of the responses I hear when I ask my peers in the healthcare community if they are evaluating their programmes or initiatives. I often wonder why people so frequently fear evaluating the work they’re doing, whether it’s a service being delivered or an innovation being used. Usually their attempts fall short as they lack the evidence they need to demonstrate impact, which reinforces the fear of spending time on evaluation. But here’s the thing: evaluation doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. It doesn’t have to be time consuming to provide you with useful insight. Nor should it be postponed – or avoided.
Evaluation is an approach to measuring the development or impact of a product, initiative or service that seeks to answer a question relating to how it’s working. This can involve a series of questions addressing different aspects of a complex change, or a single question looking at the main driver or activity behind the goal you are trying to achieve.
One useful, well-considered piece of evidence is better than a report full of last-minute proxy measures. I have sat in board meetings when one well-thought-out survey has provided the evidence that’s needed to make systematic changes to service delivery, when simple activity data has informed decisions about the continuation of funding, and when capturing the voice of a patient has dramatically improved the care they receive. Are these instances of change based on perfectly designed and implemented evaluation? No. But they are targeted and planned pieces of evidence designed to answer a question that is important for the audience and that’s what makes them effective.
So how do we do that? By spending a little time thinking about the question we need to answer and then planning to answer that question. As 16th century Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes said, ‘The person who is prepared has their battle half fought’.
Miguel’s words couldn’t be more true when it comes to evaluation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all develop the most robust methodology to capture everything our products and initiatives do, have a perfect counterfactual (thinking about what didn’t happen but could have), and be completely replicable in our approach? Instead we live in the real world where deadlines are tight, time is scarce, control over the things that may happen in patient journeys is impossible, and access to data proves more difficult with each day. Yet we CAN still do our best. Our projects – and our patients – deserve that.
So, if you are working on a project and don’t know where to start when it comes to evaluation, my advice to you is this: start early. If you build evaluation into your project from the beginning, it will be much easier to monitor and report activity later down the line.
Think of evaluation not as a process of data gathering and analysis but as a process supporting decision making.
- Try to articulate the key question you need to answer to make that decision.
- Be realistic. If you have a budget and scope for rigorous evaluation, great. If not, then it’s better to focus your efforts on what is needed to answer your priority question(s).
- If you aren’t sure where to start, check out our quick guide to starting an evaluation or seek advice from a colleague or service who can help.
If you can do these few things, you’ll be well on your way to winning the battle of evaluation …and evaluation will become as easy as 1,2,3.
Follow Lou on Twitter @LouHallMandE