Strategic Plan 1997 - 2000

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Letter to the Minister

The Honourable Michael Wooldridge MP
Minister for Health and Family Services
Parliament House
Canberra ACT

Dear Dr Wooldridge

Re: Strategic Plan of the National Health and Medical Research Council for the Triennium 1997-2000

I have pleasure in enclosing the strategic plan for the NHMRC for the current triennium as required by statute. you will observe the following key elements:

  1. the further development of a strong strategic research capability;
  2. a continuing emphasis on quality of care by the development of evidence-based clinical practice guidelines;
  3. a commitment to enhance the outstandingly high quality of the Australian research effort in public health and medical research;
  4. a commitment to the national Public Health Partnership;
  5. a determination to work with OATSIHS and others in the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health;
  6. a major project relating to expanding and updating guidelines relating to gene technology; and
  7. a commitment to timely responses, improved communication and dissemination of advice and research findings, and to thorough evaluation of effectiveness.

As you are aware, the principal committees have not yet met. Each committee will assemble a work plan for the triennium consistent with the strategic plan. Performance indicators and targets will be developed for each of the objectives in the light of the advice and work plans of the principal committees.

Council looks forward to working with you and the Department of Health and Family Services to ensure that Australia's leading role in public health and medical research, the development of high quality advice and guidelines in all areas of health and its rigorous safeguarding of the rights and safety of humans involved in research and in health care are all enhanced in the present triennium.

Yours sincerely

Richard Larkins
National Health and Medical Research Council


The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is unique among national research funding and advisory bodies because it consolidates within a single national organisation the often independent functions of research funding and development of advice. One of its strengths is that it brings together and draws upon the resources of all components of the health system, including governments, medical practitioners, nurses and allied health professionals, researchers, teaching and research institutions, public and private program managers, service administrators, community health organisations, social health researchers and consumers. The functions of NHMRC come from the statutory obligations conferred by the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (the Act).

The Act sets down four statutory obligations on the directions taken by NHMRC. These obligations are:

  • to raise the standard of individual and public health throughout Australia;
  • to foster the development of consistent health standards between the various States and Territories;
  • to foster medical research and training and public health research and training throughout Australia; and
  • to foster consideration of ethical issues relating to health.

Council recognises that in discharging these statutory obligations, it must work in conjunction with others within Australia and around the world. It must employ its resources wisely so as to maximise cost benefit and meet the demands for efficiency, relevance and accountability.

Council also recognises that its members must accept responsibility, individually and collectively, for setting coherent policies and priorities and ensuring that its objectives are met. It must ensure the continuity, relevance and responsiveness of its activities to local, national and global health needs.

Council has developed a statement of strategic intent encapsulating its resolve. It is:

NHMRC will work with others for the health of all Australians, by promoting informed debate on ethics and policy, providing knowledge based advice, fostering a high quality and internationally recognised research base and applying research rigour to health issues.

In this strategic plan, Council:

  • asserts the primacy of NHMRC's goal of improving health throughout Australia;
  • re-affirms its commitment to excellence and accountability pursued through a strong, innovative and independent NHMRC;
  • exploits NHMRC's unique brief to promote the development and application of knowledge within the health system;
  • provides mechanisms to strengthen its contributions to high quality health research in the service of the Australian community and to evidence based health care and health promotion;
  • develops an increasingly cohesive, responsive and imaginative NHMRC;
  • reaffirms its commitment to work with others involved in the Australian health system; and
  • recognises that public consultation on all issues is vital.

The central theme of the proposed approach

The most important feature of the strategic plan set out below is its drive to capitalise on NHMRC's unique breadth of responsibilities ranging from basic medical research, to applications research and development in health, to the provision of comprehensive advice on the most complex and important matters affecting the nation's health. These responsibilities mean the NHMRC has a strategic role to provide national leadership in the broad arena of health policy and direction in Australia.

The potential that this breadth of responsibility offers to the NHMRC must be purposefully and systematically developed if NHMRC is to retain and enhance its role in these times of fiscal restraint and intense competition for research funding. The NHMRC must ensure strong synergy between its component parts to:

  • ensure that research is undertaken which addresses the pressing problems facing health and health care delivery;
  • translate the fresh insights derived from creative health research in its many forms into prospects for improved therapy, health care and health promotion; and
  • ultimately, improve the health of the community by fostering the development of health care based on the best available evidence.

Major challenges

Over the coming triennium NHMRC must retain a strong capacity for delivering independent expert advice to Australian governments and the Australian community on issues of health standards, ethics and research and to maintain and build on AustraliaÍs excellence in health and medical research. Council must also optimise its decision making processes and ensure continuity in its strategic planning so that long-term initiatives begun in this triennium will be continued in the next.

In particular the NHMRC will need to:

  • work within the Australian health system to ensure that the structural reform underway delivers quality health outcomes;
  • ensure that leading edge developments in research and clinical practice are monitored and their possible introduction to Australia is assessed carefully in light of ethical standards, scientific evidence and economic impact;
  • strengthen the understanding of the cultural, social and behavioural basis of health and illness, and how this can be applied to health prevention;
  • develop ongoing procedures to make transparent to all involved in NHMRC, and outside NHMRC, how the organisation operates, develops initiatives, makes decisions and ensures consistency and continuity of NHMRC work;
  • encourage appropriate involvement and balanced participation of all segments of the Australian health care system in research;
  • facilitate the full dissemination of the findings of Australian medical research;
  • work towards the integration of all its activities; and
  • evaluate rigorously its own performance and the performance of the Australian health research effort.

The strategic program for the 1997-1999 triennium

A      Objectives

  1. To ensure that Australia maintains and further develops its research effort across all areas of health.
  2. To develop further a strategic research capability so that areas identified to be of importance to health care in Australia where the research effort is currently underdeveloped and emerging health problems can be targeted for special research endeavour.
  3. To ensure that advice is developed which is relevant, timely and informed by evidence and that it reaches its proposed target audiences.
  4. To continue to provide high quality ethical advice with respect to health research and health care.
  5. To enhance the transfer of research and discovery into improvement in quality of care and health outcomes.

B      Strategies to achieve these objectives

  1. To ensure that Australia maintains and further develops its research effort across all areas of health.
    1. A single committee-the Research Committee [public health and medical] (RC)-will ensure the coordinated development of funding policies between biomedical, allied health, public (population based) health and health services research.
    2. The RC will undertake a review of the level of support of various categories of research support (projects, programs, fellowships, training awards, block funding, equipment etc) and develop plans to achieve the optimal balance for public health and medical research in Australia.
    3. The RC will re-examine its strategy for developing and sustaining the research careers of young investigators.
    4. The RC will enhance the health research effort by developing further funding partnerships with government and nongovernment organisations, including industry, in Australia and overseas. It will ensure that additional funding obtained through such partnerships does not compromise the overall research effort and standards by unduly distorting the direction of the research effort or by otherwise inappropriately constraining the research.
    5. The RC will work with the Florey Centenary Committee to use the occasion of the centenary of the birth of the Nobel prize-winning medical scientist, Howard Florey, in September 1998 to increase awareness amongst the Australian community and particularly young people in Australia of the importance of health research and the outstanding contributions that Australians have made to it.
    6. The RC will work with the Strategic Research Development Committee to achieve an appropriate balance between investigator-initiated and commissioned research.
    7. The RC will develop a policy to allow equitable means of establishing appropriate employment conditions for research staff funded by NHMRC grants in the new industrial relations environment.
    8. The RC will develop and implement new methods for submission and processing of research applications based on modern information technology.
    9. The RC, in conjunction with Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC), will develop ways of auditing the conduct of research it supports, consistent with contemporary standards internationally.
    10. The RC will develop ways of monitoring the outcome of NHMRC supported research.
    11. The RC will develop a policy for communication of research outcomes so that those responsible for providing the funds for the research effort, including the Australian community, are able to understand the global contribution being made by Australian health research.
  2. To develop further a strategic research capability so that areas identified to be of importance to health care in Australia where the research effort is currently underdeveloped and emerging health problems can be targeted for special research endeavour.
    1. The Strategic Research Development Committee (SRDC) will be established to oversee the development and implementation of a program of commissioned research.
    2. Priorities for targeted research will be identified as areas of particular importance to the health of Australians, where current levels of research are inadequate. SRDC will consider requests from Council and the other principal committees of NHMRC, the Minister for Health, the health departments of the States and Territories and the Australian community in developing its priorities.
    3. The workplan of SRDC will develop strategies for targeting research effort, including requesting proposals in specific areas, calling for tenders for research contracts on specific topics, or the generation and disbursement of scholarships and fellowships in particular areas where the current level of research activity and the complement of research personnel is inadequate. The 1997-98 Federal Budget includes an initiative to support 45 scholarships in areas where research activity is currently underdeveloped.
    4. The design and implementation of the work program for SRDC will require guidance from Council and coordination with all the other principal committees.
    5. A central strategy of the SRDC in achieving its objectives will involve developing appropriate partnerships.
    6. Examples of self-funded programs already referred to SRDC include the health effects of electromagnetic radiation, youth suicide and otitis media in indigenous populations.
  3. To ensure that advice is developed which is relevant, timely and informed by evidence and that it reaches its proposed target audiences.
    1. The National Health Advisory Committee (NHAC) will have primary carriage of the advisory role of Council.
    2. NHAC will work with other groups to develop and update guidelines and strategies in areas of identified priority, and to manage the dissemination of this information and advice. Many of these areas will also be addressed by the Department of Health and Family Services, the Australian Health Ministers' Advisory Council or individual States or Territories, so the development of partnership arrangements and in some cases contractual arrangements will be important for NHAC in addressing certain issues. Collaboration with the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services with respect to the continuing priority of the health of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders will be of particular importance. The advice developed by NHAC will at all times be based on the highest available level of evidence, and will include an appraisal of the economic consequences and practicality of implementing the recommendations.
    3. NHAC will use the criteria for priority setting developed in the last triennium in the design of its work program, namely:
      • the level of community concern;
      • the potential benefit to the community of NHMRC's involvement;
      • whether
      • the significance of the problem;
      • the size of the problem;
      • or not NHMRC is well placed to consider the problem; and
      • the resources available to NHMRC.
    4. NHAC will work with the Commonwealth, State and Territory departments of health to further the objectives of the National Public Health Partnership to develop a coordinated and effective approach to public health policy development and implementation.
    5. NHAC will work with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and others to develop a mechanism for identifying major future threats to the health of Australians.
    6. NHAC's work plan will include strategies to develop a rapid response capability where emerging issues in health require urgent advice.
    7. Methods will be developed to evaluate the extent to which the advice generated by NHAC has reached the target audience and the effectiveness of that advice in achieving altered practice or outcomes.
  4. To continue to provide high-quality ethical advice with respect to health research and health care.
    1. The Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC) will implement the recommendations contained in the 1995 report of the Review Committee into the roles and functions of institutional ethics committees.
    2. AHEC will develop a work plan involving revision of existing ethical guidelines and identification of new areas where guidelines are required.
    3. One area where ethical considerations are involved and where interaction with the RC, SRDC, NHAC and Council will be required is the expanding potential role of gene technology in prediction of and therapy for human diseases.
    4. The development of ethical guidelines with respect to xenotransplantation has already been referred to AHEC, and will also require collaboration with Council and the principal committees of NHMRC.
  5. To enhance the transfer of research and discovery into improvement in quality of care and health outcomes.
    1. The process of developing clinical practice guidelines based on evidence derived from research will be continued. NHAC will be responsible for overseeing this task, and it will develop partnerships with health and medical professionals, professional colleges and associations, the Cochrane Centre at Flinders University and the Department of Health and Family Services, as well as the States and Territories, in developing guidelines. Clinical priorities will be chosen on the basis of:
      • their importance to the health of Australians;
      • the utilisation of resources;
      • the existence of variable and suboptimal practice; and
      • the availability of sufficient levels of evidence to support evidence-based guidelines.
    2. SRDC and RC will develop strategic funding initiatives to encourage the development of research capability to allow evaluation in relation to available evidence of clinical practice and outcomes.
    3. A strategy will be developed by NHMRC to ensure that the results of research and the evidence-based advice derived from research reaches desired audiences. This strategy will include innovative approaches based on new information technology.

Specific performance indicators and targets in relation to each of the objectives

Performance indicators and targets will be developed for each of the objectives listed following the meetings of the principal committees and Council. Principal committees will present work plans to Council before the end of 1997, and a mid-term evaluation of the strategic plan will be performed by Council.

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