Bridging the gap from discovery to patient care

By Dr. David Hill

Dedicated health researchers across the country are working every day to make discoveries that improve patient outcomes and support a higher quality of life. Our research hospitals have a mandate to develop and test new treatments, technologies and procedures that address our most pressing health challenges.

There is a cycle of health innovation that is supposed to happen – scientific discoveries are made, they transition to clinical trials and then are adopted as an improved standard of care. This is followed by evaluations of the new method and moving along to the next cycle of refinements and improvements. But the reality in Canada is that gaps, in some cases chasms, disrupt the creation and adoption of evidence-based health innovations.

This starts with discovery. The research funding climate in Canada continues to be extremely difficult. Despite the Federal Government outlining substantial new investments in discovery research in Budget 2018 much of that money will not be available to researchers until 2020 and beyond, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) continues to be limited by a low funding rate of around 14 per cent. Funding for large, definitive clinical trials is especially difficult to support with public funds. Too many good ideas are left unfunded, and in that environment researchers can feel it’s wiser to propose incremental and ‘safe’ science that avoids controversy and the risk of losing support for experienced research teams built up over many years.

Yet researchers are persistent and manage to secure funding from a range of smaller agencies. Unfortunately, many of these do not fund the indirect costs of research necessary to cover administration, infrastructure, equipment maintenance and upgrades, and the investigator’s salaries. Indirect costs are estimated to be approximately 40 per cent on top of direct study costs. In research hospitals these costs generally fall on the institutions to find funding outside of the provincial government budget that covers the costs of hospital care. This is a negative spiral whereby the more successful a hospital becomes in attracting research funds, the bigger the gap in finding the resources to support that research.

When innovative solutions to health care problems are delivered, backed by solid evidence, adoption into our hospital-based care is often far from rapid. Currently, in most provinces, there is no funding mechanism to translate health innovation to the ‘real world’ setting of our front-line care. Yet, such a mechanism is crucial to the translation of science. Clinical trials are carefully designed with strict protocols and criteria for a highly specific population of patients. Innovations that work in a clinical trial do not always work in the real world where patient populations and settings are much more complex.

Following a clinical trial, innovation needs to be tested at the point of care. Without funding to do this, research innovation hits a roadblock. Scientists are left waiting and hoping that one day their provincial government might look to incorporating their innovations into the health system funding schedule. Meanwhile, their work may be used to inform health care improvements in other nations.

Let’s innovate how we innovate

An example can be found in medical imaging research. Canadian scientists, including those at Lawson Health Research Institute, are leaders in the development of positron emission tomography (PET) biomarkers to improve diagnosis and understanding of disease using PET scans.  PET biomarkers are successfully created and then validated in clinical trials across our nation, but there is little funding to translate them back in a timely fashion to patient care in our hospitals. While countries like the US and Europe readily adopt these innovations, Canada lags behind.

This gap was addressed in a report to the Federal government by the Advisory Panel on Healthcare Innovation entitled “Unleashing Innovation: Excellent Healthcare for Canada” and published in 2015. The panel recommended the formation of a Healthcare Innovation Agency of Canada open to hospitals and other care providers in order to evaluate health innovations in the real-world setting of our health system. Scientists would apply by putting forward evidence from their research, including that collected from clinical trials. They would then design a new translational study to test their innovation at the point of care, with the goal of building evidence for presentation to provincial government.

Will everything tested at the point of care succeed? No; some things will fail in the real world. This is why such a fund is so important. It will show whether or not an innovation truly benefits patients and if it’s ready for wider adoption. If successful, the evidence will highlight the right time to bring innovations into the mainstream standard of care. By bridging this gap in the system, we can improve patient care and ensure a timely return on the investment in science.

Dr. David Hill is Scientific Director at Lawson Health Research Institute, the research institute of London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London