NZ has beaten the odds and dodged a bullet, so let’s not wait for another health crisis to hit before we fund a world-class health research system for what lies ahead

We have been lucky, very lucky. Beaten the odds, dodged a bullet, won the lottery, had the sun shine kindly upon us. 

However you like to say it, to get to Covid-elimination we have been lucky.

But our good fortune has come from hard work and dedication from our “team of 5 million”. Foremost has been the commitment of our front-line health workers, supermarket employees, cleaners, emergency services, politicians and policy-makers in providing essential services and leadership. Supporting them, the carers, teachers, whānau, entertainers and others who helped make life bearable through some of our darkest days. We have all worked very hard, and the harder we have worked the luckier we have become as a nation.

Hard work, great leadership and our national team spirit are not the only ingredients to our good fortune. We also needed to be prepared. And we were prepared – just. It was very clear that this pandemic was not following the rule book, and that some areas such as our public health units were not fully resourced to go to battle stations immediately.

But we committed resources, followed the advice of experts, redirected effort and put new systems in place quickly to allow us to successfully push back the first wave of this virus from our shores.

This was a health crisis; central to our preparations are the organisations dedicated to training our health professionals and the research required to keep us ahead of developing issues. I work for one of those institutions, the University of Otago, and am immensely proud of my colleagues and their collaborators who put their training and knowledge to the test to help battle the virus.

We rely on support from government, private sector and philanthropic agencies to maintain our preparedness through research. The responsiveness of these agencies to the crisis by directing new funding to Covid-related research has been much appreciated. For example, the Health Research Council – the core government agency supporting research aimed at improving New Zealanders’ health and wellbeing – ran a rapid-response process in March and April to support 13 new studies focused towards combatting the coronavirus outbreak.

But, like our public health units, the HRC was not resourced sufficiently to be able to support all the work needed. They have an annual budget of around $120 million for health research across all spheres, corresponding to less than 7 cents a day for every New Zealander. I went to my wallet just now and realised that, since 2006, we have stopped minting a coin small enough to allow me to make my daily donation to the collection box. I think this budget should change.

Preparedness for future battles with this and other viruses is not all that’s needed. We have epidemics of obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia facing us. We have issues of inequity in outcomes from our healthcare system to understand and solve. We have the largest ever lift in mental health services requiring research to inform its implementation, and research to help monitor progress. We have our commitments to global health in the Pacific and around the world to meet, and research is the vital bridge between nations in many of these efforts.

Also, the recovery and rebuild of our society and economy must be research-informed and built on the hard work put into getting us into our fortunate position. Our high-tech sector is rapidly growing to augment agriculture and tourism, and medical-technology companies like F&P Healthcare are leading the charge. Competitive advantage in this sector requires leading-edge technology that must be supported by ongoing research investment, and the economic return on that investment has been shown to be more than a factor of 10.

So, what is my vision? As a nation we need to value the transformative power of research, and we do. Annual surveys conducted by New Zealanders for Health Research, show that good health is consistently the number one priority for New Zealanders, and that there is a deep understanding of the need to support our healthcare system with research. 

We also need to understand the importance of realistic investment, using borrowing if necessary, to achieve the outcomes we desire – demonstrated by the use of a wage subsidy to soften the economic fallout from lockdown.

For the HRC, my vision would be for a non-partisan commitment to double our investment over four years, to the point where we are investing a dollar a week for every New Zealander, with another doubling in the four years thereafter. For two bucks a week we would then have, by the end of this decade, a world-class health research system supporting our world-class health professionals delivering the care we all deserve.

We have all worked very hard to get to this fortunate position. We should not ride our luck for too long, but should look to the horizon and prepare for what lies ahead.

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