Partnership brings innovative care and products to patients and families

Sep 14, 2017

Alberta medical researchers are recognized around the world for their groundbreaking advances. For the past five years, a partnership between Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Alberta Innovates (AI) has been bringing researchers’ advances into the healthcare system to benefit patients and all Albertans.

Reg Joseph, AI’s vice president of Health, and Tracy Wasylak, AHS’s senior program officer for Strategic Clinical Networks (SCNs), describe the partnership and how it’s changing lives for the better.

Why’s this relationship important?
Joseph: Because it creates a pathway to take innovation from the lab into the healthcare system, which is not always easy. AI provides a range of supports to foster innovation in medical research. Part of our mandate is to translate that research into health, social and economic benefits for Albertans. The SCNs are an integral part of that.

What are Strategic Clinical Networks?
Wasylak: SCNs are province-wide, multidisciplinary teams focused on a particular aspect of health (such as cancer or diabetes), areas within the system (such as emergency medicine and mental health) or groups of patients (such as seniors, newborns, children or Indigenous Peoples). Each of Alberta’s 15 SCNs is made up of healthcare professionals and clinical researchers as well as administrators, patients, families, community groups and policy-makers. They work independently or with other SCNs to use research, innovation and evidence to improve how we deliver care.

Are SCNs unique to Alberta?
Wasylak: We’re not the first in the world to have these networks, but ours are unique because they include the research arm. We are facing tough healthcare problems and by bringing the research community and clinical community together, we’re better able to understand and solve those problems.

What’s an example of a problem?
Wasylak: One is how antipsychotic drugs were being used in caring for older adults in long-term care. We once had a high rate of use of these drugs and now we’re leading the country in stopping their use where they’re no longer needed. Our Seniors Health SCN and our Addiction and Mental Health SCN have led this work. And in June, they began helping New Brunswick’s healthcare system make similar changes.

How do the SCNs learn what the researchers are doing?
Joseph: Researchers are part of every SCN and we also have specific programs designed to help bring research to the SCNs. One of those is the Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Health System. This partnership is funded 50-50 by AHS and AI. Funding from this partnership helped our Surgery SCN to improve patient care before, during and after surgery.

Another program, Accelerating Innovations into Care, is administered by AI to bring innovative products and solutions into the healthcare system. It works by having an SCN identify a need and having AI reach into the research community to find the solution. It’s a case of matching existing needs with Alberta-made solutions.

What’s the difference between that and a clinical trial?
Joseph: We’re involved after clinical trials in what we call a real-world evidence trial. We’re introducing products into care and into real-life settings. Real-life settings tend to be messier and less controlled than clinical trials, but they are also a more realistic picture. If it proves useful, a product or innovation can be introduced to the healthcare system as a whole.

What are AI’s and SCNs’ roles in these trials?
Joseph: AI provides the research funding for additional resources such as a nurse, statistician, clinician or other personnel to introduce the innovation and track how it’s working. The SCNs focus on supporting operations to deliver the new approach and, if it makes a positive difference, how it can be adopted and then introduced across Alberta’s healthcare system.

What’s next for the SCN-AI partnership?
Wasylak: We’ve formed core communities to bring people from across the province together so that good ideas can be brought to the table. This gets done by people who run our healthcare system collaborating every day. We also have more than 110 patients and families involved with the SCNs. We’re learning what’s needed directly from patients. Having them front and centre is really important.

Written by Debby Waldman (originally appeared in Apple Magazine, Fall 2017)