Opinion Piece: Professor Garry Jennings AO, Executive Director, Sydney Health Partners

Professor Garry Jennings AO

Topic: How $10 million in medical research funding can transform the health system, and transform lives 

With all the news and analysis surrounding the Federal Government’s $10 billion health care package delivered in the Budget in May, there was one important announcement that went relatively unnoticed - and it’s one that has the potential to transform Australia’s health system.

$10 million will be provided to the Australian Health Research Alliance from the first disbursement from the Medical Research Future Fund for transformational research that will deliver new solutions to the health system, and directly benefit patients.

Yet while this announcement did not capture much attention many of us in the health system were elated. Elated because despite it being a relatively small investment when compared to that in Medicare and the PBS, it will go a long way to ensuring that research gets from the bench to the bedside - reaching the people who need it, and reaching them faster.

In Australia we are fortunate to live longer, healthier lives than almost anyone else in the world. This is a sign, among other things, of an excellent health system. While we often hear negative stories relating to our health system, the reality is that we are envied around the world.

But our health system is not perfect. It is fragmented in many ways, and challenges are faced when different parts of the health system interface with each other – creating pressure points. It is around these pressure points - or cracks - that most of the issues lie that regularly vex doctors, nurses and policy makers alike. Think emergency waiting times, ambulance responses or surgery waiting lists where there is an imbalance between demand from the community and the capacity of the health system to deliver.  Rather like a national energy grid, enough capacity for the everyday may not be enough when demand peaks. 

There are also cracks between different parts of the national health system. These may be between State and Federally funded parts of the system, between the public and private systems, and also between activities that are focused on prevention and those focused on cure. Important social determinants of health tend to be put in one bucket and the biological determinants in another. These are challenges we face as we work towards a system that works cohesively together.

Our health system is also still geared towards treating episodes of care, a bout of the flu, a broken bone or a heart attack.  The system is largely funded and organised that way, with General Practitioners paid per visit, hospitals per patient admission and discharge, surgeons per operation.  These traditional fee-for-service funding systems pay practitioners to not do something - and that something is looking at the bigger health picture. Most importantly data does not flow effectively across the different systems. 

The pace of innovation in health also reveals gaps between new knowledge about disease and health, and its application by doctors and other health professionals in the clinical world. Medical and health research is constantly turning up new things. The capacity to turn new research findings into changes in policy and practices in our hospitals, or indeed our health policies, and to bring issues faced by health system practitioners to the parts of the research world that have the solutions, is a constant challenge.

The pace of innovation has never been so fast and the need for an integrated health discovery, translation and implementation system has never been greater. Those responsible at every level of government and management of the health system are very aware of this, and one of the solutions borne from this need has been the establishment of Advanced Health Research and Translation Centres (AHRTCs).  While AHRTCs are a new phenomenon in Australia they are part of a worldwide movement, often called Academic Health Science Centres, that try to address this very problem and embed research, innovation and evaluation in the health system.

Two years ago the National Health and Medical Research Council accredited four inaugural AHRTCs - one in Sydney, one in Adelaide and two in Melbourne.  These are partnerships of health service networks, universities and medical research institutes. They bring together research, education and health care delivery, and are world leaders in translating the outcomes of research into excellent patient care, with a strong focus on the education of health professionals. They were established to ensure the health system is fully informed by quality health and medical research - transforming the way health and medical innovation can improve lives.

The key promise AHRTCs offer is that they span the entire system of health research translation, innovation and care - unlike anything before them. They address the cracks in the system and cross institutional, jurisdictional and academic boundaries. They also create scale through collaboration and foster grass roots policy development and evaluation - meaning changes can be made from the bottom to the top.

Together the AHRTCs recently formed the Australian Health Research Alliance, and with the addition of the recently or soon-to-be announced new AHRTCs and Centres for Innovation in Regional Health, the Alliance will cover over 90% of research and much of the health system in Australia. This represents an enormous opportunity to work collaboratively as a national alliance to take a ‘whole of life’ approach to health enquiry that will help to address the seeds of major burden of disease.

Recently the Federal Government announced that $10 million will be provided to the Australian Health Research Alliance from the first disbursement from the Medical Research Future Fund for transformational research that will deliver new solutions to the health system, and directly benefits patients.

Despite it being a relatively small investment when compared to that in Medicare and the PBS, this funding really matters. It matters because it will give people access to new and better treatments - for diseases and conditions that affect many Australians like cancer, dementia and heart disease as well as mental health issues and childhood illnesses. It matters because it will help to ensure the more efficient use of limited health resources through collaboration and avoiding duplication. But most of all it matters because by transforming the health system we will be transforming lives.

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Page Last Updated: 13 July, 2017