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Michael Schooley & Monica Oliver on Distinguishing Evaluation, Research, & Surveillance

We are Michael Schooley, chief of the Applied Research and Evaluation branch in the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention at CDC, and Monica Oliver, an evaluator in the branch.

As public health evaluators, we often encounter the question of when a particular endeavor is ‘evaluation,’ when it is ‘research,’ and when it might be considered ‘surveillance.’ Evaluation, surveillance, and research are at once independent and complementary. A closer examination of the nuances of each provides food for thought for strategizing about how and when to employ them.

Hot Tip: A three-legged stool is a helpful metaphor for thinking about how evaluation, traditional research, and surveillance interrelate. Though different purposes drive each, the approaches converge to support our evidence or knowledge base.

We think of traditional research as a mechanism for exploring a concept, testing for causal links, and sometimes for predicting what will happen. Linear in approach, it typically involves stating a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, analyzing any data around that hypothesis, and drawing a conclusion from that analysis.

Evaluation can be about program improvement, determining the impact or outcome(s) of a policy or program, or accountability and oversight. The process of evaluating also can be a journey of change and understanding in and of itself for participants. Circular in nature, evaluation continually loops back into a program, offering information that we might use to assess the merit of a new program, improve an existing program, or affirm a program’s effectiveness or adherence to a plan.

Surveillance identifies health problems, monitors conditions, and tracks outbreaks, equipping us to make decisions about when and how to intervene.

Like the legs on the stool, research, evaluation, and surveillance can stand in tandem, drawing from similar methodological approaches and distinctive principles to support and contribute to our knowledge base.

Rad Resource: A ten-minute audio presentation entitled Program Evaluation, or Evaluation Research? is available at http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/state_program/coffee_breaks/. Developed in the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention here at CDC, the presentation is modeled in the vein of AEA’s “coffee breaks.”

Want to learn more from Michael and Monica? They’ll be presenting several sessions this November at Evaluation 2010!

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