April 21, 2016

What research matters for the 21st century?


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Group Health leaders and national public health experts weighed in on GHRI’s future role in health care. Dr. Eric B. Larson tells what we learned.

The future of health research was a theme at our annual Group Health Research Advisory Board (RAB) meeting in March. Our RAB gave us valuable feedback to guide us over the next year. Sue Byington, RAB and Group Health Board of Trustees chair, noted the significance of GHRI research to our organization’s future. Group Health CEO Scott Armstrong remarked on the incredible opportunities for our enterprise to have an even bigger impact on the nation’s health care going forward. But Bob O’Brien, Group Health executive vice president, health plan division, raised what I thought was the most provocative point.

Bob said Seattle is revered among the business community nationwide. With the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and biotech startups, our city is known as a hub of global health, biomedical breakthroughs, and clinical innovation. Bob praised the value to Group Health of high-profile GHRI research (see recent New York Times coverage). However, he commented that our focus on long-term prevention and life-long wellness usually doesn’t get the media attention given to last-minute medical rescues, genetic breakthroughs, and new “magic bullet,” drug-based therapies. It’s true. Our work just isn’t that sexy. But I believe it is foundational to more headline-grabbing fields like precision medicine. Here’s how.

GHRI work supports and binds all health research

GHRI has infrastructure and expertise for the multisite, interdisciplinary, data-driven science that our region is famous for. Our leadership in data collection, standardization, warehousing, and analysis is crucial to national research networks like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Sentinel program to monitor drug and device safety, and the Health Care Systems Research Network, which improves screening and care for cancer, mental health problems, addiction, and more. We’re leaders in the drive to fully engage patients in research, as Karen Wernli, PhD, GHRI assistant investigator presented to the RAB. Our RAB members emphasized how the capabilities of GHRI and the interests of our faculty make us fundamental to cutting-edge health research in many other areas as well.

Researchers in precision medicine seek us as collaborators because “genes rarely tell the whole story,” said RAB attendee Sheila Lukehart, PhD, University of Washington professor of medicine, infectious diseases and global health. For personal genomic information to have meaning, we must interpret it in the context of people’s lives such their behavior choices and environmental factors. Only then can we see how experiences and external influences combine with genetics to affect health. Our RAB recognized that Group Health has the best data for this kind of work. Our Center for Community Health and Evaluation is a leader in gathering data on community, environmental, and social determinants of health. GHRI’s exceptional biostatisticians and programmers have special expertise in analyzing these disparate sources of data, now popularized as “big data.” A single drug, device, or treatment won’t solve public health crises such as the opioid addiction epidemic, high rates of suicide, or care concerns for an aging population. Our comprehensive research approach is the only way to examine and address these complex health issues.

And we’re ready for the future

I expect us to hold our unique position as leaders in the collaborations that connect high-visibility fields like precision medicine with practical research on prevention. Another reason I’m positive about our future is that in the past year, GHRI has added seven new faculty members—four in the last month. These early career scientists are: biostatisticians Jennifer Bobb, PhD; Fei Wan, PhD; and Yates Coley, PhD; addiction researcher Joe Glass, PhD, MSW; dissemination and implementation scientist Cara Lewis, PhD; pharmaco-economist Kai Yeung, PharmD, PhD; and health informatics expert Pedja Klasjna, PhD. All are stars in their field and we welcome them to our team.

I’d like to close by noting comments from two RAB members from Kaiser Permanente, John Steiner, MD, MPH, senior director, Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Research in Colorado, and Karen Emmons, PhD, vice president for research and executive director, Kaiser Foundation Research Institute. Both emphasized the importance of community health, including finding, measuring, analyzing, and improving social factors that influence health. This aligns perfectly with the GHRI mission and our expertise. Our new hires and our current faculty are committed to using data in innovative ways to address health issues that affect a diverse population. We’re well positioned to develop, test, and spread innovative health-improvement ideas, whether they are high-tech and glamorous or low-tech but powerful.

And speaking of high-profile science and social determinants of health, please join us in June for our annual community-wide event, the Birnbaum lecture, this year featuring Baltimore Health Commissioner and TED talk phenomenon Dr. Leana Wen.