Canada’s Academic Health Science Networks: Transforming health systems

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Just a few days before the release of the federal budget, leaders from across Canada’s Academic Health Sciences Networks (AHSNs) met in Ottawa for a two-day Symposium. “AHSNs may not be a familiar term for everyone, but these entities, which comprise health care organizations, faculties of medicines and the range of stakeholders needed to integrate patient care, training and research, are critical to our capacity to transform health systems and overcome the hurdles of disability and disease”, says Bill Tholl, President & CEO of HealthCareCAN.

The 2014 AHSN Symposium was attended by over 70 leaders, ranging from deans of medicine to health care CEOs, clinicians, administrators, vice presidents of health research and others. Themed “Innovations in Academic Health Care: Collaborating to Compete”, it focused on five key questions.

The first question was about how Canada’s AHSN’s collaborate to compete and brand our country globally. Dr. Peter Singer, President & CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, an organization which funds Canadian undertakings to improve health internationally, talked about the number of Canadian innovations that are making a difference in developing countries.  Grand Challenges Canada has supported 230 innovative global health projects totalling $42M in Canada, largely in academic health science networks and related companies.  Examples of innovations funded by Grand Challenges Canada included an app that allows blood oxygen testing, which allows for life saving tests at a fraction of the cost of regular devices, and a cooking device that is being used to reduce the risk of anemia.

“The faculties of medicine of Canada – from professors to researchers; students to trainees, are all vested in the success of academic health science networks – it is within these networks that they bring the promise of training, research and education to patient care. It is within these settings that the promise of the profession can be brought to life today and for future generations,” says Dr. Genevieve Moineau, President & CEO of the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.

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As such, a second key question discussed at the Symposium related to the effect of time and place on the challenges facing these organizations. To this end, Dr. Peter Pisters, President & CEO of University Health Network; Ms. Dianne Doyle, President & CEO of Providence Healthcare; Dr. Gavin Stewart, Dean of Medicine at the University of British Columbia; and Ms. Tracy Kitch, President & CEO of IWK Health Centre offered their collective conclusions: Context matters, but many issues seem to transcend time and place when it comes to sustaining health research in academic settings.

The third key question of the symposium related to the role of federal funding for AHSNs. This was highlighted in presentations from Dr. Alain Beaudet, President and CEO of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Canada’s premier federal health research granting agency) and Dr. Gilles Patry, President & CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which funds research and innovation related infrastructure. Academic health science leaders in Canada require adequate and sustainable federal support for both of these organizations.

The April 21st federal budget brought some welcome relief in terms of additional funding for CFI ($4.33B for 10 years starting in fiscal year 2017-18). However, there is no increase planned for the CIHR budget until 2016-17.

The mixed results of the federal budget for academic health sciences networks highlighted the importance of the fourth question discussed at the Summit, which was to take stock of the status of a nine-point action plan for the sustainability of health research. This action plan was developed at the previous (2014) Symposium. It focused on ensuring that we have the leadership capacity to ensure that the winning conditions for health research are achieved nationally and that we have the right policy and funding conditions for the research endeavour.

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The last question of the event focused on the role of the private sector in realizing our potential in the life and health sciences research arena. A panel discussion featured Canada’s medical device companies (MEDEC), research based pharmaceutical companies (Rx&D), and biotechnology companies, (BIOTECanada).  Presidents & CEOs of respective national associations shared their insights into how to build a better business case for conducting research in Canada. While the nature of AHSNs and private sector companies are different, in many respects we share the same overall goals around growing the health research enterprise. The discussion highlighted the importance of collaborating between the private and public sectors to compete effectively globally.

This was the fourth annual AHSN Symposium, which is co-hosted by HealthCareCAN, the national voice of health care organizations in Canada and the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada. Photos and presentations, as well as the referenced action plan, are available at www.ahsn.ca