Intended for healthcare professionals


Health think tanks: what are they and how they shape our NHS

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: (Published 30 March 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o426
  1. Sam Scott, junior doctor1 *,
  2. Jessica Forsyth, junior doctor2 *
  1. 1Milton Keynes University Hospital, Milton Keynes MK6 5LD, UK
  2. 2Barts Health NHS Trust, London, UK
  3. *Joint first authors
  1. Samuel.Scott{at}, jessicarachel.Forsyth{at}

Health policy has perhaps never before been so firmly in the public spotlight. The covid-19 pandemic has put government decision making and the structure and funding of the NHS under persistent scrutiny, and people are increasingly interested in how healthcare decisions are made. Health think tanks play a critical role in influencing government decision making around healthcare policy, and this influence is growing. But what are they? These purpose-driven, third party organisations are often quoted, but their importance in the UK health policy landscape is not always appreciated. We aim to clarify their role and make clear why their work matters to both current and future clinicians.

What are think tanks?

Think tanks are politically independent organisations that seek to support and challenge the government in their health and social care decisions and keep health politics accountable to public interest. Rebecca Fisher, a practising GP and a senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, describes them as “policy-focused research institutes” that seek to “Inform and influence health policy via politicians, policymakers and public engagement.” The major health think tanks in the UK include the Health Foundation, the King’s Fund, and the Nuffield Trust. Each is unique, but, broadly, they use data, insights, and analysis to evaluate decisions around health care, propose government policy, and share information with healthcare providers and the public.

What does this look like in practice?

A lot of what think tanks do starts with research. This can include analysing previous policy decisions to inform future policies or using real-world data and stakeholder experience to help guide decision making. The output will depend on the target audience, and might include academic papers, policy reports, newspaper …

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