Health Research Institute to look for answers
New institute plans to conduct research into improving the health and well-being of everybody
Dr Mary Shire: ‘We want to develop a critical mass of researchers.’
The newly established Health Research Institute (HRI) at the University of Limerick (UL) brings together a multi-disciplinary range of researchers with a focus on convergent and translational health research. “The institute’s mission is to conduct outstanding transformative research in order to improve the health and well-being of individuals, patients, communities and populations,” says director Prof Austin Stack.
The establishment of the HRI is a natural step in the university’s evolution in the health research arena, according to research vice-president Dr Mary Shire. “We didn’t have health faculties when the university was established. In 2001 we started with nursing and then added physiotherapy and other health disciplines and finally added a school of medicine.
“The early focus was on accreditation and research started to grow organically after that. We saw a strategic opportunity to build on this organic growth and we have now moved into the health research space.”
The objective is for the institute to act as an enabler for researchers by allowing access to interdisciplinary research expertise across a range of departments in the university. “We want to develop a critical mass of researchers – interdepartmental, inter-institutional and international,” says Shire. “Inter-disciplinary working is part of UL. The HRI will allow easier access to research leaders with significant track records as well as industry partners, patient cohorts and communities. The HRI will support the scope and capacity of research within UL and with our partners and will help us to establish a collaborative research network at the heart of our health research community.”
She sees this community as going beyond the traditional health areas and including disciplines such as engineering, ICT, and sport. “We have always been very much at the forefront of education in physical activity through Thomond College, ” she says. “A number of Olympians train here and we also have Munster Rugby moving in. We are very strong in elite sport but we also have access to all the schools through the PE teachers who train here.”
Initially, the institute is concentrating its research around three broad themes: technology-enhanced health outcomes; lifestyle and health; and health services delivery.
“Technology has been hugely important in the evolution of healthcare in Ireland, ” Stack says. “At one end there is the collecting, preserving and dissemination of information. How good are we at managing our healthcare information in the system? We are moving from paper-based systems to electronic records and we need robust information systems to manage the records and data and support emerging areas such as health informatics.
“It also extends into areas like biomedical engineering. We have a number of principal investigators looking into improving outcomes for patients with vascular diseases by developing better diagnosis and treatment options for example.”
“We have a tremendous amount of knowledge built up dealing with high performance athletes over the years but what hasn’t really been done up until now is the translation of this knowledge into treatments for patients suffering from chronic illnesses. Why do people lose muscle mass with chronic diseases? What’s going on at the cellular level and can we reverse this? We want to capitalise on our expertise and expand into areas of research like that.”
Research into health service delivery will take in all aspects of the system from acute care, through chronic care, primary and secondary care and beyond. “We will look at the connections between the providers and the need for a collective approach to treatment,” says Stack.
“We will have physicians and dieticians and consultants working together advancing research in specific domains of the health service. We will look at the current quality of care. How are we doing in relation to international benchmarks? Do we reach enough people? For example, how well is chronic kidney disease being managed at the moment? Limerick is ideally situated to ask these questions as we have a number of key stakeholders on board to help drive it.”
Shire points out that this focus on health service delivery was one of the topics under discussion at the recent Health Revolutions conference, which was held to mark the establishment of the HRI. This globally focused conference spotlighted some of the innovations, inventions and world-leading research which is revolutionising the world of healthcare. The event featured speakers from across industry, research and healthcare systems who addressed a range of topics including “Health service delivery for the 21st century”, “Building healthier communities”, and “Treatments of the future – drug, surgical and diagnostic innovations”.
Some of the international speakers included Michael Dowling, president of North Shore-LIJ Health System, Dr Peter Gregersen of The Feinstein Institute, and Dr Stephen K Smith of the University of Melbourne.
“We are looking at the inequalities in the health system and that was one of the key topics under discussion at the Health Revolutions conference,” says Shire. “We believe we can make a difference to the quality of our health service.”
The University of Limerick Hospitals Group will play an important role in this research, she says. UL Hospitals is a group of six hospitals in the mid-west that offer a range of services – from accident and emergency departments, cancer and maternity care to inpatient and outpatient services, orthopaedic services, and medical assessment. All the hospitals are run together to form a single hospital system across the six sites.
“The group is ahead of the others in terms of what the HSE is setting up and it gives us a great opportunity to engage with hospitals in the region.”
UL is the academic partner and a number of staff are appointed jointly by UL and ULH and this promotes a dynamic education and research agenda. “We are also engaging with the wider public health space in community care and primary care,” Shire adds.
“Our students spend more time in general practice than any others in the country. Our overall goal is to provide a rich collaborative environment that fosters discovery and innovation in health science that will lead to better health, improved care and a healthier society.”