“Evidence-based”… What does it mean?

If you are an organization that is looking for funding sources, you may be aware that many federal funding organizations (e.g. Department of Health and Human Services) are increasingly interested in funding projects and programs that are evidence-based. Recently this term is being applied across many areas such as health, mental health, education, and the judicial system.


What does the term evidenced-based mean? While the definitions do vary somewhat depending on the area of application, all definitions refer to the use of scientific research as a way to inform service delivery, or programming or policy. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, answers the question: What is evidence-based? as follows:

“In the health care field, evidence-based practice (or practices), also called EBP or EBPs, generally refers to approaches to prevention or treatment that are validated by some form of documented scientific evidence.” ….. “Evidence-based practice stands in contrast to approaches that are based on tradition, convention, belief, or anecdotal evidence.” (SAMHSA, What is Evidence Based?)

Pitfalls of Anecdotal Evidence

The SAMHSA definition points out a common problem; some organizations may continue to offer programs even though they have only anecdotal evidence that the program is accomplishing its goals. For example, anecdotal evidence could lead to the following hypothetical statement:

Demand for food bank baskets are a lot higher than one year ago; therefore more people must have fallen below the poverty level. In contrast, evidence-based research might result in the following statement: Our study shows that 25% of needy families in our community have stopped applying for food stamps and are instead turning to food banks for food, resulting in increased demand.

Organizations that conduct careful program evaluations will gain useful data that illuminate the reasons behind changes in client usage, or reasons why some programs are effective and others are not. This evidence will allow organizations to sustain and grow effective programs and services.

Evidence-Based Practice

This definition from The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines a broader process. They define evidence-based practice as:

“a process involving creating an answerable question based on a client or organizational need, locating the best available evidence to answer the question, evaluating the quality of the evidence as well as its applicability, applying the evidence, and evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the solution.” (NASW, Evidence Based Practice)

Finally, a succinct illustration of what the term evidence-based signifies comes from Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton at Stanford University. One of their principles of evidence-based management is: “Be committed to “fact based” decision making — which means being committed to getting the best evidence and using it to guide actions.” (Pfeffer & Sutton, Evidence Based Management)

Evidence-Based Practice and Program Evaluation

The widespread emphasis on evidence-based research, practice, and policy is encouraging because it is this that we, as program evaluators, are consistently working toward: applying scientific methodology to assess the effectiveness of programs. In other words, we do the research that tells you what is working, how well it is working, and what is not working. A program evaluation consultant can help organizations look beyond their beliefs and anecdotal evidence and gain a broader understanding of the value of their programs and services.

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