Clinician Scientists and Academic Health Science Networks

This past week was all about health research, as I attended two very informative conferences. The first, at Western University, was the Consensus Conference on Clinician Scientist Training in Canada. It was hosted by Dr. Michael Strong, the Dean of Medicine at Western and a very well-regarded clinician scientist. He also has an ongoing active research program in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

The Future of Medical Education in Canada Postgraduate Project has as its first recommendation: “In the context of an evolving healthcare system, the PGME system must continuously adjust its training programs to produce the right mix, distribution, and number of generalist and specialist physicians—including clinician scientists, educators, and leaders—to serve and be accountable to the Canadian population.”

Clinician Scientists are those clinicians (MDs in our case, but from all health professions) who have advanced research training (MSc, PhD, CIP) and devote a considerable percentage of their time to research. They may be involved in the full spectrum of research, from the wet lab to population health, or medical education research. Their role as bridge from bedside to laboratory is essential for our health research enterprise. The role of the clinician scientist is a challenging one in a world where competing clinical demands are infinite and research funding is declining. The situation in Canada is dire, according to some observers, given that many established clinician scientists are aging and, just recently, the CIHR withdrew support for MD-PhD programs. The purpose of the meeting was to develop recommendations to enhance the training of and train more clinician scientists. I will be happy to share those recommendations with anyone interested when the report from this conference is completed.

The College of Medicine five-year plan and The Way Forward call for the addition of 10 clinician scientists. We are now embarking on some of that recruitment. Our own MD-PhD program has been under-subscribed and we are working with medical students and the research office on its enhancement. However, the greatest thing we can do as a college to support clinician scientists and grow research is changing our culture. The famous old question frequently encountered by these hard-working scientists is from their MD colleagues, who say, “Are you coming to work today or you going to your lab?” Our clinician scientists need our support, and that may be through sharing research ideas, recruiting our patients to trials, respecting protected time for research, and cheering their successes.

The next conference, in Ottawa, was the Academic Health Sciences Network National Symposium 2016. This annual meeting is co-sponsored by the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada and HealthCareCAN. The latter is an organization of the large teaching hospitals in the country. I have previously blogged about academic health science centres and networks and their crucial role in teaching, research and the success of medical schools. The College of Medicine will never achieve its goals without such a partner. While we’ve made great progress in our partnerships here in Saskatchewan, our healthcare system does not have a membership in HealthCareCAN. Given the tremendous success of the U15, HealthCareCAN has now developed its own lobby group, the H10. The only two unrepresented provinces are Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The symposium this year had excellent presentations on the changing political environment, using research to enhance patient safety in teaching hospitals and more discussion on training to support clinician scientists. We also heard from the leaders of the major funding agencies: CIHR, CFI and Genome Canada. Overall, it was an excellent meeting.

At the end of the day we had an opportunity to meet Dr. Kirsty Duncan, federal Minister of Science, and lobby for research funding. We were also asked to provide input into the development of a Chief Scientific Advisor position by the federal government. It remains to be seen whether we are entering “sunny ways” for health research but the mood in the room was positive and the consensus was that things were unlikely to get worse!

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Minister Duncan and colleagues from the AFMC

Minister Duncan and colleagues from the AFMC.