This year marks an exciting year for medical research in WA. It’s as if 2019 marks a culmination of the years of groundwork by researchers, funders and those charged with trying to bring everyone to the same table.

The opening of the Australian National Phenome Centre at Perkins South has shown the country that big research projects can be successfully launched in WA.

The WA Health Translation Network, led by Prof Gary Geelhoed, is now part of the Australian Health Research Alliance (AHRA) and when there’s strength in numbers governments tend to listen.

One of the issues AHRA has been working on is identifying and overcoming barriers between research evidence and implementation.

Gary spoke to Medical Forum about WATHN’s role in AHRA and the growing dialogue with government.

“AHRA has taken on four responsibilities – Aboriginal health, data management, hospital systems research and the other, which WATHN is heading up with our Sydney partners, is consumer and community involvement in research.”

“We have conducted a national survey on community involvement in research and it really reflects what’s happening in medicine generally. A generation ago, medicine was regarded as paternalistic where the doctor knew everything; they diagnosed the problem and told you how they were going to solve it.”

“Now, medicine reflects a wider philosophy, that it’s a partnership. Patients are more literate and want to discuss their problems and possible treatments. Research is one of the pillars of the health system so consumers should be involved there as well to determine what research is important to patients and consumers.”

Gary said nationally recognised WA consumer advocates Anne McKenzie and Pip Brennan were heavily involved in WATHN’s work in this area.

Consumers have sway

“WA has always been very strong in consumer advocacy and it’s the reason we put our hand up to lead this study – because of the leadership we’ve had from Anne and Pip and Michelle Kosky, beforehand. We’ve had some fantastic people working and influencing the national agenda.”

“There are other areas of interest that are coalescing, some that are being suggested by us, some that are being suggested by the Minister Greg Hunt. For instance, he asked AHRA to explore national approaches to wound care. It may not be sexy research but wounds come at a terrible personal and community cost and some fantastic work was done.”

“We are heading that up with the wound study along with the Brisbane group because of the strength and evidence of Silver Chain’s work in this state.”

There is also a women’s health network that has sprung up and again we’re sending two representatives there so there is a lot going on.”

Gary said that 2019, on a national level, looked encouraging in funding terms. The funding pot keeps growing with Medical Research Future Fund powering on as well as the NHMRC coffers swelling.

“There is a doubling of the national pot, or the two biggest pots nationally, and that’s an incentive for everyone,” he said.

The challenge is to see that more of that money heads West.

“We only get 6% of NHMRC money yet we have 11% of the Australian population so could say we are roughly getting about half of what you might expect. To put it simply, if the pot is doubling, we should expect a doubling of the money coming into the state.”

Attracting fair share

“Our challenge, of course, is to increase that 6% of national money. What can we do to make our chances better? Well, there is a growing sense of collaboration in the state, and support for WAHTN from all of our partners.”

Gary also said currently there was strong political support for medical research, not just the doing but also its intrinsic place in the WA health system.

“It is absolutely core business. There is weight of evidence that shows that a health service does best when it champions academic and research and innovation as equal pillars. It means you get a better service and better outcomes for patients.”

“There is often talk about trying to speed up the time between when things are discovered and when they become practice and some of the worst scenarios suggests 17 years is the time lag, which is just incredible.”

“What we need to do is ensure that people in charge of research are actually sitting at the top table of our hospitals, they are actually a part of the executive so they have input on big decisions being made by the health services. How they affect research and how research will affect them.”

Translational research is a concept that’s been around a long time now, but funders are getting serious about it. Gary said the NHMRC will be focusing more on what has been achieved by researchers rather than how many papers they have had published.

“This is being very simplistic but once upon a time, success in academia was how many papers you have published, then you put it on the shelf and left someone else to translate those findings into action, which is probably explains the 17 years!” he said.

“NHMRC are now looking into research and researchers whose work has led to improved health outcomes. When you apply for funding now, you have state what do you expect will be the impact of your research and how are you going to measure that impact.”

“WA is waking up to the fact medical research and innovation is all about better outcomes for patients and that there are all sorts of positive spin offs. I mean it is very big business and this is something we have not been particularly good at, but there are now lots of groups here in WA focused and encouraged by people such as the Chief Scientist Prof Peter Klinken and the Health Minister himself who is promoting the Future Health and Innovation Fund.”

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