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Am J Prev Med. 2008 Oct;35(4):380-5. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2008.06.039. Epub 2008 Aug 6.

We are what we do: research outputs of public health.

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Faculty of Health, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, New South Wales, Australia.



If public health research does not progress beyond descriptive research to testing the effectiveness of interventions that can provide causal data, its contribution to evidence-based practice will not be realized. This paper examined the number and percentage of public health research publications over three time periods (1987-1988, 1997-1998, 2005-2006) for three preventive health issues: tobacco use, alcohol use, and inadequate physical activity.


A computer-based literature search was conducted, using the Medline and PsycINFO databases. A random sample of 1000 abstracts for each preventive health issue was examined per time period. The abstracts were first categorized as public health or not, and then as data-based or non-data-based public health research. Data-based publications were classified according to research type as measurement-, descriptive/epidemiologic-, or intervention-oriented. Data analysis occurred in 2007.


The number of data-based public health research publications examined for each topic ranged between 180 and 346 in 1987-1988, 199 and 322 in 1997-1998, and 302 and 364 in 2005-2006. Despite a significant increase over time in the percentage of intervention publications for tobacco (from 10% in 1987-1988 to 18% in 2005-2006, p=0.008), the majority of publications in all three time periods were descriptive/epidemiologic for all topics (62%-87% in 1987-1988, 64%-85% in 1997-1998, 78%-79% in 2005-2006). There were fewer measurement (3%-7% in 1987-1988, 2%-6% in 1997-1998, 4%-10% in 2005-2006) or intervention publications (9%-31% in 1987-1988, 10%-30% in 1997-1998, 12%-18% in 2005-2006).


Descriptive research does not provide optimal evidence for how to reduce preventable illness. Reasons for the lack of measurement and intervention public health research are explored.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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