Why medical research is a matter for all of us

Medical research may seem remote from day-to-day life despite its potential to transform lives.

Consider the constellation of research projects granted funding this month by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The targets for research range across medical science, including predicting the progressive phase of multiple sclerosis, footwear for self-managing knee osteoarthritis symptoms and understanding the health impacts of sleep apnoea in Australian men.  And that’s not to mention the largest clinical trial ever conducted in Australia --- to determine whether daily low-dose aspirin prevents disease in healthy older people.

Such a list tends to prompt images in our mind’s eye of our own or others’ experience with the conditions under scrutiny.  As a community of health consumers we do in fact possess a deep well of knowledge about experiences good and bad concerning health care.

Now there is more concerted attention being given to consumer insights.

The Medical Research Future Fund strategy released by the Federal Government recently acknowledges that the realities of contemporary healthcare have given credence to the idea that consumers should have a voice in research priorities, including the direction of health system, services and preventive health projects if we are to get the best out of our lives.

As the MRFF strategy document states: In the future, consumers will drive their own healthcare in partnership with clinicians, and it is therefore important to start working together earlier in the research pipeline.

The strategy statement also said that given the social, economic and political significance of healthcare, Australia’s consumers were willing and wanting to be more engaged. Also welcomed were the directions set out for health services and systems such as a National Institute of Research to focus on evidence-based and cost-effective health services and preventive health research; building evidence in primary care, and the development of behavioural economics with an emphasis on early intervention in mental health, diet and physical activity.

Giving impetus to this development was the release last month of a revised joint statement by the NHMRC and the Consumers Health Forum on consumer and community involvement in health and medical research.

This reflects the growing engagement of consumers with medical research such as in the NHMRC’s Centres of Research Excellence Scheme whose applicants are required to demonstrate extensive engagement with research end-users and the community.  Another example is the Partnerships for Better Health initiative which has provided unprecedented opportunity for consumers to partner with researchers in the co-design of research proposals and to seek funding from the NHMRC.

As the CEO of the NHMRC, Professor Anne Kelso, says  the community has a vital role to play in health and medical research as contributors, participants and advocates, helping to ensure that research is undertaken that will lead to improved health and health care.

CHF is committed to promoting consumer knowledge about research and invigorating the capacity of the consumer sector to engage in research design, conduct and translation through such measures as education and training.  We seek to collaborate with the research community, to involve consumers in priority-setting, and to advise on research translation and consumer centred policy.

Consumers must have a strong voice in future directions of health care.  It is why CHF is involved in the NHMRC Partnership Centre for Better Health which is exploring the issue of health system sustainability and evaluating appropriate advances from a clinical, patient and economic perspective.

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About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia