Notes from Eric
January 2013

Late-year funding arrives like a breath of fresh air

After a year that began and ended with national economic uncertainty, GHRI starts 2013 with at least two causes for optimism. One, our country’s health care system clearly needs the practical sort of research that is our Institute’s strength. And two, we recently received notice of funding for this kind of research from new sources—the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) and the Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Common Fund.  

Because of these and other grants and contracts—along with careful management of our core budget and project spending—GHRI has exceeded our financial target for the year. That’s no small accomplishment given changes underway at NIH, which provides more than 80 percent of our funding. Like other research organizations nationwide, we’ve seen a sharp decline over the past two years in the percentage of our NIH submissions funded. Only 22 percent of our 2012 applications have been successful to date. While this exceeds the current national average of about 17 percent, it’s far below the 30-50 percent averages we enjoyed for several years before 2011. 

But here’s the good news: GHRI is still projecting a record-high level of external revenue for 2012: about $46.3 million, compared to $43.5 million in 2011. How did we do it? Through increased productivity of excellent scientific work that’s providing highly relevant solutions for problems in the real world of everyday health care. Our faculty and staff submitted more grants than ever in 2012, aggressively pursuing opportunities to do projects best suited for environments like Group Health. Much of this revenue comes from new work in areas where we have long had success—our federally funded research in vaccine safety, cancer screening, and drug safety, for example.  

But with changes in NIH’s funding patterns, we’re also working to diversify, pursuing more support from foundations, industry, and new government sources such as PCORI, which was created in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act. PCORI takes patient-centeredness to new levels; it insists that patients play an active role in research—including designing projects. “Our legacy will include standards for research that anyone can use to address the health outcomes that matter to patients,” the PCORI website states. So it makes sense that Group Health, the nation’s premier consumer-governed health care cooperative, should be a strong partner for this new agency.  

We submitted a total of seven grants to PCORI last summer—five of which made it to final rounds of review. When PCORI announced on December 18 that two would be awarded to GHRI, we were thrilled to learn that ours were the sole two in Washington state and among only 25 selected from among 500 applications nationwide.

PCORI will fund a project led by Senior Investigator Dan Cherkin, PhD, to determine better ways to care for patients with back pain. And Research Associate Clarissa Hsu, PhD, will lead a PCORI-funded project exploring new ways to connect patients with community resources. In addition, GHRI Programming Consultant David Carrell, PhD, will work with researchers from HealthPartners Institute for Research and Education in Minneapolis on its PCORI grant on measuring patient outcomes from high-tech imaging studies.

PCORI is slated to award $3.5 billion in contracts over the next five years. If PCORI demonstrates that its type of patient-centered outcomes research is valuable (and I think it is), then it’s likely to become an essential part of our nation’s research infrastructure. With GHRI scientists’ focus on practical research—enhanced by our strong collaboration with Group Health patients and their clinicians—we hope to work closely with PCORI for many years to come.

Another new funder, NIH’s Health Care Systems Collaboratory (described in my December message), will support three pragmatic clinical trials involving GHRI investigators. Each is designed to determine best methods and practices for mining real-world data resources of large health systems like Group Health. Our three demonstration projects will seek to prevent suicide, improve colorectal cancer screening, and improve back-pain care through better diagnosis.

Each of these projects is just one part of the large GHRI research portfolio that aims to help people everywhere live healthier lives. At any time, GHRI’s 300-plus workers juggle more than 250 research projects—a number that’s grown steadily, involving increasingly strong partnerships within Group Health’s learning health system.

It’s hard to predict how the nation’s economic and political woes may affect our work. But thanks to our partnerships within Group Health and other institutions, and our talented, hardworking faculty and staff, we can be confident that we’re in the right place at the right time to do the work that supports our mission: improving health and health care for all.

Happy New Year!

Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH


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