Feb. 1, 2023

National fellowship program hosted by UCalgary prepares researchers to address complex health system issues

Mentoring and collaboration opportunities for fellows are hallmarks of training
From left: HSI Fellow Elena Lopatina and mentors Deborah Marshall and Tracy Wasylak.
From left: HSI Fellow Elena Lopatina and mentors Deborah Marshall and Tracy Wasylak.

The University of Calgary is hosting a specialized national health systems training program that offers doctorate and postdoctorate fellows access to one-on-one coaching from senior leaders and an opportunity to launch their careers beyond the traditional academic path.

As part of the National Cohort Training program (NCTP) for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Health System Impact (HSI) Fellowship, researchers are embedded in health system organizations where they can have an immediate impact on policy and patient care.

The program is being led for a second consecutive year by Dr. Deborah Marshall, PhD, a professor in the departments of Community Health Sciences and Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine. UCalgary was awarded the NCTP grant in 2021, the first time the training portion of the fellowship was hosted by an external group and has since welcomed 40 to 50 fellows and their mentors each year.

Addressing real-world health system challenges

A postdoctoral fellow with the Alberta Pain Strategy at Alberta Health Services (AHS), Dr. Elena Lopatina, MD, PhD, is helping to create a program for patients living with chronic pain as part of her HSI fellowship.

“My work on the design, implementation and evaluation of the provincial pain program allows me to apply my expertise in health economics and applied health services research, which I gained during my PhD, and to practice my recently learned change management skills while working towards improving health services delivery for many of the estimated 800,000 Albertans living with chronic pain.”

Dr. Natasha Gallant, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Regina, has applied learnings from the program to her own research as an assistant professor.

“My focus is to make sure that my research is impactful. I work not only with other researchers, but also those with lived experiences within the health-care system, health-care professionals, and health policymakers. The research is shaped through this back-and-forth between the research and health system teams.”

Collaboration with peers and industry leaders

Lopatina says relationships established during the HSI fellowship led to collaborative research projects, conference presentations, publications, grant applications and friendship. Marshall, Lopatina’s academic mentor, says the networking and collaboration opportunities enhance her mentee’s leadership competency and provide an opportunity to apply her advanced research skillset to pressing health system challenges.

“The triad engagement between fellows, academic mentor and health systems mentor also provides insights to me as an academic mentor about mobilizing knowledge to translate findings into actionable and impactful change,” Marshall says.

“The opportunity to serve as a mentor for our future leaders in health services research is truly inspiring and gives me hope for transforming our health system to one that is both evidence-based and patient-centred.”

Mentorship as the foundation

Lopatina’s health systems mentor Tracy Wasylak, chief program officer of the Strategic Clinical Networks at AHS, says the program has allowed her to support and foster the next generation of embedded scientists beyond traditional academic environments. 

“As a mentor I have learned from their approaches and expertise in applying their research skills to health system problems we are working on together. As a leader in the health system, I have been able to expose my colleagues to the benefits of embedded researchers and how these roles support innovation and transformation.”

Gallant says the opportunity to have both an academic and health system mentor is invaluable. “While my academic mentor provided me with opportunities to refine my research skills, the health system mentor helped me find ways of ensuring that my research was meaningful and valuable to the health system.”

Gallant’s mentor Dr. Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Regina and director of that university’s Centre on Aging and Health, says having the training program in the clinical setting where the research is conducted gave Gallant an opportunity to form unique connections with point-of-care providers.

“It also allowed the two of us to discuss and problem-solve around issues related to interdisciplinarity and practical matters linked directly to the nature of the clinical setting. This experience was key to her growth as a scientist-practitioner. Moreover, the initial investment of the Saskatchewan Health Authority in the HSI fellowship ensured their firm commitment to facilitate her training and research.”

Other aspects of the program led to national collaborations of former HSI fellows and opportunities for senior investigators to continue working with them on spinoff projects, he adds. “The connections that the HSI fellows formed, both within clinical settings and nationally, were especially helpful immediately after the launching of their careers as independent investigators.

“The NCTP is a unique community of mentors and recent alumni who share common goals. The common background of the participating HSI fellowship alumni and their mentors facilitates discussions, the exchange of ideas and planning of future and ongoing research.”

The Health System Impact Fellowship, National Cohort Training Program is led by Drs. Deborah Marshall of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the O'Brien Institute for Public Health, and Tom Noseworthy, MD, from the O'Brien Institute for Public Health.