Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in Australia, costing the economy about $10 billion annually.
For rural and remote populations, much more is at stake. Around 30 per cent of Australians live rurally without easy access to health care, and these communities have 20 to 30 per cent higher rates of cardiovascular disease.
Despite these alarming statistics, UQ Centre for the Business and Economics of Health (CBEH) researcher Associate Professor Haitham Tuffaha said there was a lack of funding for rural and remote health research across the board.
“In 2018, only 2.4 per cent of National Health and Medical Research Council funding was allocated to rural health research,” Dr Tuffaha said.
“One likely explanation is poor awareness of the value of this research.”
Their report centred on a proposed randomised control trial led by University of Newcastle nutrition and dietetics researcher Professor Clare Collins.
The proposed trial would involve dieticians giving rural patients nutrition advice via telehealth to help reduce their risk of diet-related cardiovascular disease.
Using the ‘value of information (VOI) analysis’ method, Dr Tuffaha and Professor Birch found that if the randomised control trial took place, the return on investment would be around $60 million.
“VOI analysis allows us to objectively and transparently assess the value of health research – specifically, in terms of how it improves decision-making and implementation,” Dr Tuffaha said.
“So how will this proposed trial help healthcare providers make better decisions and avoid extra costs? We expect the value of improved decision-making to be around $20.7 million.
“If the proposed trial benefits the participants, other healthcare providers are more likely to try the same intervention. We estimate the value of wider implementation to be around $39.5 million.”
Dr Tuffaha said the estimated $60 million total payoff far eclipsed the $1 million required to fund the proposed trial.
“For every dollar invested in this research, it will generate $58 in value – an expected return on investment of 5800 per cent,” he said.
“If you’re funding new research, this proposed trial is an obvious choice.
“It’s time to address the funding imbalance – here, we have proven that rural research can improve health and decision-making and generate economic and social dividends for rural and remote communities.”
The study was one of the first in Australia to use VOI analysis to measure the value of a real-life research proposal.
Dr Tuffaha said their findings could benefit researchers and funding bodies.
“Researchers can use VOI analysis to forecast the expected return on investment of their proposals,” he said.
“Likewise, government agencies, research organisations and advocacy groups can use it to assess proposals and prioritise research funding – well before the research begins.
“Australia spends a huge amount on medical research. This approach would allow all involved to maximise their resources, money and time.”
Professor Collins said Dr Tuffaha’s report was a potential gamechanger for her research field.
“Nutrition is undervalued for the impact it can have on health care and quality of life,” she said.
“It’s especially vital for people in rural areas with higher rates of diet-related heart disease.
“However, the only way we can get government and healthcare agencies to value nutrition research is by showing that it has economic value, which is why this study is so important.”
Although the CBEH and Spinifex Network report – also known as ‘the Haitham report’ – was published in January 2021, Dr Tuffaha’s work continues.
His next potential project is a user-friendly, programmable tool – similar to a tax refund calculator – that will allow researchers and decision-makers to easily measure their return on investment.
“We’re searching for partners to sponsor this project and help us develop and commercialise this tool for wider use,” he said.
The former pharmacist-turned-researcher is well versed in applying health economics principles to different healthcare contexts.
His recent work includes a partnership with the Australian Clinical Trials Alliance, as well as giving evidence at a parliamentary review on improving access to new drugs and medical technologies.