The big shift

Mar 30, 2018

Once solely a research funder, Alberta Innovates has evolved to also be an effective broker, coach and catalyst for health care solutions [among other sectors].

When global foundation Merck for Mothers said it wanted to fund Canadian health research, Alberta Innovates jumped at the opportunity. It connected Merck to the province’s Maternal Newborn Child and Youth Strategic Clinical Network (SCN). The SCN consulted with researchers and communities that ultimately pitched three projects focused on Indigenous women, who are twice as likely as other mothers to die in childbirth or lose their babies.

The projects were turnkey. The SCN had already identified the health problem and clearly mapped out solutions. All they needed was funding.

Merck for Mothers accepted the SCN’s pitch in 2017 for a $1.3-million research project in three Alberta communities: inner-city Edmonton, the Maskwacis Cree First Nation in central Alberta and the Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta.

“It’s really about supporting Indigenous communities as good allies,” says the SCN’s head Allison Bichel, PhD, who is also the leader of Alberta’s Merck for Mothers project.

She says Alberta Innovates was central to the project. It connected Alberta researchers and Indigenous leaders to Merck Global—the pharmaceutical company behind the Merck for Mothers foundation—and it added another $300,000 of project funding.
Bichel says Alberta Innovates works to understand industry goals and needs, and identifies investment opportunities. “They’re a key broker with industry partners.”

Originally mandated with funding health research, Alberta Innovates has now added the role of broker and catalyst of both research and innovation, says Reg Joseph, the organization’s vice president of Health.

“We’ve always funded excellent science in the hopes it would translate into health benefits for patients, the healthcare system itself and the economy,” he says. “But we came to realize that these benefits don’t happen without a lot of work behind the scenes.”
That realization is behind Alberta Innovates’ shift from a research funder to a healthcare partner with groups such as industry and Alberta Health Services. It works with its partners to translate science into better patient care and is a catalyst for change throughout the healthcare system.

“They helped support [our] project from the proposal stage and helped us translate it from proposal to practice,” says Navjot Virk, project manager for the Dementia Friendly Community project in southern Alberta.

Project partners also include Alberta Innovates, AHS, Alberta Seniors & Housing and the Brenda Strafford Foundation, for which Virk is the research and innovative practice coordinator.

“The number of people 65 years or older is now higher than the number of children 14 years and under. A large number of [older] people will experience some form of dementia,” she says. “We need to come up with better ways to support people so they’re not solely institutionalized.”

The project is applying a global approach to community outreach for people with dementia to two Alberta communities: the town of Okotoks and the communities of Signal Hill, Strathcona and Christie Park in Calgary.

Alberta Innovates’ insight has helped Virk and her team connect with experts elsewhere in Canada, as well as structure project committees and develop a way to evaluate the success of the project. In short, Virk says, Alberta Innovates has propelled the project forward.
In the first year, several communities asked to join the project. This is great news, says Virk, as the project’s ultimate goal is to create a toolkit to help Alberta communities adopt the program and learn about dementia.

Many Alberta Innovates projects have a community focus. In Camrose, the local primary care network is researching technology that people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can use at home to improve their health. For example, Colleen McKinstry, the project’s clinical director, says patients take home digital technology synced to devices that measure their blood pressure and blood oxygen levels. The data is then sent to their local primary care network.

“In real time, we get the results back through a program that is similar to an electronic medical record,” she says. This allows a patient’s healthcare team to act quickly if help is needed.

McKinstry says Alberta Innovates has been part of the project since its start, supporting and connecting the team to industry partners, such as Boehringer Ingelheim and General Electric. Alberta Innovates will also help support the evaluation of this project to gauge its value to patients and the healthcare system. McKinstry hopes the project will succeed in Camrose and expand to other parts of Alberta: “We want it to be standard practice for patients.”

Originally appeared in Apple Magazine, Spring 2018

Written by Caitlin Crawshaw, and illustrated by Eric Chow