Medical Research Future Fund takes shape

Editor: Dr Ruth ArmstrongAuthor: Megan Howeon: In: health and medical research, Healthcare and health reform, public health

As outlined in a previous post at Croakey, health research bodies have welcomed the announcement of the strategy and priorities for the Federal Government’s $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), which reveal a new focus on funding research into health services and systems.

The strategy and priorities announced last week by Health Minister Sussan Ley focus on six areas: data and infrastructure; health services and systems; strategic and international horizons; trials and translation; capacity and collaboration; and commercialisation.

Research Australia CEO Nadia Levin welcomed the MRFF Strategy, saying its vision of a health system informed by quality research was “exactly what was needed”.

Sax Institute CEO Professor Sally Redman said the new focus on research into health services and systems and on the importance of linking data would help unlock answers that would drive the best use of resources to deliver the best patient care.

“The strategy represents a welcome direction which really looks like being a game changer in the way research is funded in Australia,” Professor Redman said.

The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes President Professor Tony Cunningham said the Fund Priorities ‒ including a focus on clinical trials, on clinical researcher fellowships and on health data ‒ would bring insight into the best ways to address Australia’s current and future health needs and to improve the health of Australians.

“The improved use of health data highlighted in the strategy will save the health system money, and reduce the physical burden of unnecessary tests and treatments on Australians, as will the focus on preventive health,” he said.

Here, Sax Institute publications manager Megan Howe outlines the key points from the new MRFF Strategy and Priority reports that reveal the future shape of the Fund.


Megan Howe writes:

The Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) was pledged by the Federal Government in 2013 and created in 2015 to provide a permanent revenue stream for health and medical research, and to support the sustainability of the health system. It is forecast to reach a balance of $20 billion by 2020, and when fully capitalised, should disburse around $1 billion annually for health and medical research, with the aim improving the health and wellbeing of Australians.

The areas of research that are likely to see some of that money have now been revealed in two, complementary documents: The Strategy report outlines the Fund’s broad direction for the next five years, while the Priorities report outlines a long list of the funding priorities for the next two years. Under legislation, the Health Minister is required to consider these priorities when putting forward proposals to Government about how the Fund’s pot of money should be distributed.

In terms of where the MRFF is placed in the broader health research environment, the Strategy report states that the Fund will “neither replicate the role of, nor operate in competition with the NHMRC” and it espouses opportunities for collaboration between the two bodies.

It also highlights the opportunity for co-funding of research in collaboration with states and territories to maximise research translation, and outlines a need for greater consumer engagement and collaboration in health research. As the report says,

Co-design and creation present an opportunity to think about the end product or therapy and its user, its degree of direct benefit and adoptability

As to what types of research the MRFF is likely to fund, the Priorities document gives the best indication, with specific priorities outlined for each of the following six areas:

Strategic and International horizons

The priorities here include the ever-growing threat of antimicrobial resistance, funding for Australian consortia to participate in and lead international research projects focusing on major global health challenges and threats, as well as research into the impact of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, wearable devices and genomic engineering.

Data and infrastructure

“Providing access to health data facilitates evidence-based care and drives efficient use of resources,” the Strategy document states. The priorities in this area reveal a strong focus on utilising data and data linkage, particularly in relation to the Government’s electronic patient record (My Health Record). They include expanding the use of secure, digitised data linked health and social data and investment to set up disease or therapy-focussed clinical registries. National surveillance and response to emerging infectious disease threats is another priority over the next two years, along with evaluation of the Fund’s economic return on investments.

Health services and systems

Both reports highlight the importance of bolstering research into health services and systems, which can lead to more affordable models of healthcare and innovative, evidence-based approaches to treatment, prevention, diagnoses and the management of disease.

One of the Fund’s priorities will be to investigate the feasibility of establishing a national institute to focus on evidence-based and cost-effective healthcare and public and preventive health – much like the UK National Institute for Health Research.

Other areas include identifying primary care interventions for which more evidence is needed, and research using applied behavioural economics for preventive health interventions, such as early interventions to tackle big issues like mental health, healthy eating and physical activity.

Capacity and collaboration

The Fund aims to encourage greater links between academia, service delivery and industry, with initial priorities including a national infrastructure sharing scheme for researchers, new industry exchange PhD and postdoctoral fellowships, and expansion of the NHMRC Practitioner Fellowships Scheme.

Trials and translation

The Fund will provide infrastructure support for both existing and new national clinical trial networks, and will have a focus on facilitating “non-commercial clinical trials of potential significance”.

One of the priorities is to extend promising trials that are unlikely to gain commercial backing to at-risk populations such as adolescents, culturally diverse groups and those with complex co-morbidities. Another priority is to work with the NHMRC Advanced Health and Research Translation Centres to study areas including clinical variation and health inequities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Commercialisation

The Fund also aims to redress what is described as “Australia’s relatively undeveloped culture for biomedical and biotechnology commercialisation” by funding the establishment of health research “incubator hubs” to stimulate partnerships between academics, clinicians and industry, and by seeking private capital investment to boost the translation of biomedical research into practice.

The next steps

Now that the strategy and priorities have been set, the Government can start disbursing the funds, which will occur via the Federal Budget process.

Megan Howe is the Publications Manager at the Sax Institute. Follow @SaxInstitute or @meghowe68 on Twitter

For further insights into the Strategies and Priorities outlined for the MRFF, see also the Croakey post here.