Funding helps push for answers on primary care in Ontario

Moira Stewart knows hundreds of questions surround primary health care in Ontario. Now, the Family Medicine professor in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry believes her newest project is well-positioned to provide some of the answers for those making the decisions.

Western’s Primary Health Care Program was among 11 recipients of the Health System Research Fund Program Awards, announced by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care last month in Toronto. The award was re-announced this week at Western.

The program, receiving $3.73 million over three years, brings together four universities and two medical institutes – Western, Queen’s, McMaster and Ottawa, as well as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. At Western, the program involves two facilities – Schulich and Health Sciences.

Stewart, who serves as the program’s lead investigator, will oversee a team of 50 Ontario researchers collaborating with health-care professionals and policymakers to enhance nearly every aspect of the primary health-care system.

Primary care is the first access into the system, the foundation of the entire health-care system. Two priorities will drive the program: primary care reform and community-based care. Out of those, four initial research projects grow:

  • Optimizing quality, access, integration and equity in Ontario primary care. Dr. Richard Glazier, Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences; Dr. Simone Dahrouge, University of Ottawa, Bruyere Research Institute; and Dr. Michael Green, Queen’s University);
  • Primary health care linking with community agencies: Keeping patients with multiple conditions healthy and at home. Drs. Lisa Dolovich and Gina Agarwal, McMaster University;
  • Enhancing primary health care linkages with home care and hospitals. Dr. Onil Bhattacharyya, University of Toronto; and
  • Creating new primary health care linkages with specialists. Dr. Clare Liddy, University of Ottawa.

The research, however, is not limited to a stagnant list of four areas. Funding is set aside for new questions from the ministry that pop up during the course of the program. Called Applied Health Research Questions, this portion of the program will keep it nimble and relevant.

It’s all about helping build a better health-care system for Ontario, Stewart said.

“There are a bunch of different policy-makers, all about trying to improve the system, all pulling a number of levers, and they need info – bottom line. And we’re it in Ontario for primary health care,” said Stewart, who is based in the Centre for Studies in Family Medicine. “You could have many successes out of this program.”

Among that team are two Western researchers – Schulich professor Merrick Zwarenstein and Nursing professor Sandra Regan – recruited to help with knowledge translation and exchange research. “That’s key. That’s saying if it’s working here in London, then let’s try it in Ottawa,” Stewart said.

The funding builds on three decades of primary-care research commitment at Western, and dovetails into a growing interest in primary-care innovation at Queen’s Park. The program, the only funded effort focused on primary care in the province, looks to provide answers to some of the biggest issues facing Ontario, and though those answers, inform policy changes, Stewart said.

“This organization is pretty unique in Canada and, certainly, other provinces are going to want to know what we find in our research. This part of it seems to be working; that part of it doesn’t seem to be working,” Stewart said. “We’re looking for information that will provide for wiser investment in Ontario.”