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by Staff Reporter
18 September 2023
Associate Feature: Advancing healthcare

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Associate Feature: Advancing healthcare

Five decades is a proud milestone for any organisation, a chance to look back on past success and towards future endeavours. But when you are at the helm of advancing the future of healthcare, this anniversary occasion takes on heightened significance, perhaps extra pressure.  

Established back in 1973, the Chief Scientist Office of Scottish Government was set up with the prime objective of contributing towards the improvement of the NHS in Scotland. 

While this objective has remained constant, much has of course changed in the intervening years, not least the Covid-19 pandemic. Reflecting on the current juncture, Chief Scientist (Health) Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak says “arguably there has never been a more challenging time for NHS Scotland, and by extension, for ourselves too.”

“We are at a pivotal moment in global healthcare. The pandemic accelerated major forces that were already reshaping the development of health and care – increased use of data and technologies; precision medicine; empowering patients in their healthcare journey; and creating more sustainable health systems to name a few.

“Over the next 50 years the role of the Chief Scientist Office of Scottish Government is to maximise the opportunities for Scotland to benefit from such healthcare advances and that extends to our patients, our NHS, and our economy. It is all interlinked and a healthier Scotland benefits us all.”

Against that backdrop, the Chief Scientist Office is bringing together researchers, innovators, healthcare staff, policymakers, industry, and the public for a reflection on the last 50 years, but also to explore how all can work together to tackle healthcare challenges, embed research, development and innovation in the NHS, and maximise opportunities for improvement and growth. 

With the theme of ‘50 years of advancing healthcare’, Scotland’s Health Research and Innovation Conference will be held on 31 October at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus in Glasgow. With over 400 delegates, over 30 influential speakers including international experts and domestic healthcare leaders, the conference will throw the spotlight on the nation’s research and innovation capabilities. 

As one of the world’s leading cardiovascular scientists and clinical academics, Professor Dominiczak is a natural leader to set a vision for future generations. She led the establishment of the Lighthouse Laboratory in Glasgow during the pandemic and was awarded a DBE for services to cardiovascular and medical science in 2016. 

Despite this impressive CV, Prof Dominiczak insistently advocates the importance of teamwork and collaboration. “This anniversary and the conference are not about me or any other individual – it recognises the importance of the Chief Scientist Office and I’ll be joined by former Chief Scientists alongside those we work closely with,” she says. 

“It is the Office, and the research and innovation infrastructure it supports, that is significant. This is a team that facilitates vital healthcare research throughout Scotland – research that provides the building blocks for clinical trials, research, and innovation.”

She herself has added to the pool of talent, including members of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) which she believes is necessary to bring extensive clinical and research guidance to how research and innovation is delivered across Scotland. 

“I feel strongly that we must always be outward looking, open to ideas – comparing and contrasting what others in the field are doing,” she says. And while she has had productive online meetings with SAB members, next month’s conference will be the first event at which they will all have the chance to meet in person.

She cites Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, chief health scientist at the Ministry of Health in Singapore, who will speak on health and biomedical science research and innovation in the city. “This will be interesting because he is my opposite number in Singapore and is leading major changes in the health service there,” says Prof Dominiczak.

Dr Victor Joseph Dzau, another SAB member, is president of the United States National Academy of Medicine and has advised US presidents on innovation and precision medicine. 
“He is someone I’ve known throughout my career because he also comes from a cardiovascular research background. He’s very charismatic, focused on innovation, and has always been very much in the vanguard of research.” 

She also appreciates the advice from immunologist and geneticist Professor Sir John Bell, who holds the Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Oxford. He has consistently stressed the need to work closely with the life sciences industry and is, above all, also a committed innovator. 

“It will be beneficial to hear these views from outside Scotland and learn from the expertise they will bring to the conference,” she says, adding that it is encouraging that the country can attract and engage the knowledge and experience of such highly valued individuals.

 “When you are able to interact with people of that stature and with that level of international reputation, it is an undoubted help,” she adds.

The overarching themes that Prof Dominiczak continually emphasises are collaboration and innovation. She is an enthusiastic champion of the triple helix approach, which involves academia, industry and the NHS working in partnership to collectively tackle healthcare challenges, offer expertise and attract investment into Scotland.

“Innovation is significantly enhanced by that sort of collaborative spirit because one group cannot do it alone,” she stresses. “And I believe that Scotland is truly the ideal place to bring all the relevant sectors together to adopt the best innovations for the benefit of patients and communities – and also to export them to the rest of the world.”

There will be much discussion at the conference about ground-breaking advances in healthcare, including major Scottish-led studies such as the EAVE II (Early Pandemic Evaluation and Enhanced Surveillance of Covid-19) which was central to the Scottish and UK governments’ response to the pandemic tracking the virus in near real-time. 

Generation Scotland – a research study looking at the health and well-being of volunteers and their families – will also be profiled. It has brought together more than 24,000 people from 7,000 families to support a range of research studies into diseases including Covid-19, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression and dementia.

Prof Dominiczak also notes a wealth of end-to-end innovation projects currently being adopted by Scotland’s health boards. One focuses on digital advances in photo acquisition by GPs that allows some skin disease referrals to be managed virtually, without the need for an outpatient appointment – an important way to reduce waiting times, provide faster, more reliable diagnosis and maximise the use of available technology. 

“Importantly, it allows colleagues – consultant dermatologists and other specialists – to pick up conditions such as skin cancer and deal with them rapidly. It has also been developed with Artificial Intelligence in mind so that when the AI is ready, we can add that layer to speed the process further. It is all about continuous improvements.”

Another project is a new medical device that can adjust insulin dosing in a dynamic manner and help control patients’ blood glucose levels. This can reduce the risks of long-term complications such as blindness, amputation, kidney failure and premature death. 

 “This allows us to control the condition more effectively and with a much better quality of life for those who are suffering from insulin dependent diabetes and means a reduction in unscheduled admissions, complications and long-term problems,” she says. 

Substantial advances in the field of AI also present dramatic new opportunities, and the Industrial Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research in Digital Diagnostics, known as iCAIRD, which comprises a pan-Scotland collaboration of 15 founding partners from across industry, the NHS, academia and SMEs will also be involved in the conference.

It has research hub sites across Scotland and its projects include evaluating and validating a mammography reading AI algorithm for performance in clinical breast screening programmes. iCAIRD is working alongside SME partner Kheiron to evaluate its Mammography Intelligent Assessment tool (Mia) to meet the needs of the Scottish Breast Screening Programme.

In such a complex and swiftly evolving field there are, inevitably, challenges. While the presentations and thematic sessions included in the conference will emphasise not only the top-level research and innovation across Scotland that has informed crucial advances and international collaboration, Prof Dominiczak concedes that all this must be translated into something that is ultimately useful for patients if they’re to be empowered and given more control over their healthcare journey. 

 “What is sometimes not appreciated is that the last step of this road, adoption by the health service, can be a struggle. You can have authoritative research evidence, publish all the appropriate papers, conduct the clinical trials, and prove that a drug or procedure is safe,” she says. 

“But to translate that into everyday practice is difficult – not only in Scotland but internationally. However, we have an advantage: with just 14 health boards, we are the right size and have really engaged chief executives who are willing to adopt these innovations when they can be shown that they do work clinically, operationally, and financially. We are all united in aims to modernise and improve our NHS.” 

She believes that drive and creativity will infuse the spirit of Scotland’s Health and Innovation Conference next month and will go on to transform the way patients here are treated throughout the next 50 years.  

“We have a fantastic team of colleagues who span the NHS, the Scottish Government and the very best in academia and the life sciences cooperating in improving these outcomes. I’m extremely encouraged by that enthusiasm and the fact that we have a shared goal about what is needed to improve healthcare in Scotland.

“To truly maximise these opportunities, we must work collectively to build that future so that proven and affordable innovations get to patients faster – and we shape a more sustainable health and social care system.

“The conference is a single day, but with an enthusiastic, driven workforce that is keen to develop and integrate new breakthroughs for better patient outcomes, we believe this conference represents just the beginning of so much more.”  

Scotland’s health research and innovation conference: 50 Years Of Advancing Healthcare
31 October 2023

Teaching and Learning Centre, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Glasgow

This article is sponsored by NHS Research Scotland        

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