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Health benefits from collaborative centres

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By Professor Helena Teede

First published in The Australian, May 24, 2017

Funding models and systems encourage and reward researchers, universities, hospitals and research institutes to guard their research and cutting-edge ser­vices jealously. These institutions have to compete against each other for diminishing research funds, high-value services or patients to generate revenue and prestige.

In this competitive landscape, if one organisation develops a new way of treating patients, with no systems for collaboration the treatment is not disseminated and improvements are not spread optimally for patient benefit. While competition in research and healthcare can drive excellence, it also can drive duplication, waste and reduce return on investment.

It is recognised that policies, systems and funding incentives need to enable and balance competition as well as collaboration to deliver health impact.

Last week Health Minister Greg Hunt announced a $10 million grant from the Medical Research Future Fund to counter­balance excellence and collabora­tion in healthcare and research.

The funding supports large-scale collaboration centres and underlines the fact Australia is catching up in a two-decade-old global movement aimed at making nations’ health and research more integrated and collaborative to prevent duplication, facilitate translation into clinical practice and enable more strategic approaches. This movement is taking hold because there is a worldwide recognition that a more big-picture, strategic collaborative approach is needed, that having silos of autonomous researchers working on their own clinical research projects or hospitals running their own trials in most cases limits health benefits from research and innovation.

Nowadays medical research is based on big numbers and big data, and Australia cannot compete internationally unless we come together. The aim of all this, of course, is to improve the health of our nation, as well as of other nations that have already adopted this policy, such as the US, Britain and many countries in Europe, while making their research more efficient, effective and internationally competitive.

Australia is now joining the rest of the world in this movement, with state and federal policies starting to align. In a vital step, about two years ago the National Health and Medical Research Council announced the creation of collaborative centres of excellence across healthcare, research and education, called Advanced Health Research and Translation Centres. Four were created (two in Melbourne, one in South Australia and one in Sydney). Three further centres will become operational soon, covering much of the nation.

These centres bring together all stakeholders and aim to be unencumbered by funding barriers, such as GPs being funded federally while hospitals are funded by their states. If there is a researcher in a university conducting a community project on melanoma and another in a hospital collecting similar data, the aim will be to bring them together to work in a synergistic fashion and obtain answers more quickly.

Reduced duplication, better collaboration, less state or federal barriers: this is a platform for generating improvements that could benefit patients at an unprecedented pace and scale. It’s about getting the best and the brightest to do internationally competitive research wherever they are in Australia, and working together to come up with new ways to improve the health of Australians.

The Victorian collaborative centres are working together, aimed at creating an integrative collaborative approach that can leverage federal and state funding, pitch to global pharmaceutical companies, provide the number of patients needed for clinical trials and, yes, fast-track treatments and therapies back into the hospital system for Victor­ians.

The push for more collaborative approaches is broader. Earlier this year the four centres announced a national manifesto that is potentially revolutionary. They have agreed to communicate about their research programs and share what they have learned for the benefit of all Australians.

Last week’s announcement supports this transformative national alliance and provides a collaborative space where the centres will share funding and outputs. Duplication will be limited and pace and scale improved. There also will be funding for involving patients in providing input into how and where research funds should be spent.

Australia is finally joining the rest of the world in conducting translational collaborative research and healthcare that is true to its name — leading to better care, regardless of barriers, funding limitations or silos.

Helena Teede is chairwoman of the National Alliance of Advanced Health Research Translation Centres. Hans Meij is executive director of the Melbourne Academic Centre for Health.