Research Culture and Remuneration

Research is the basis of innovation. Any enterprise that aspires to secure its future needs to invest wisely in research and development. Without such investment, the enterprise will invariably stagnate and allow competitors to take over – and these competitors will eventually push it out of business. Although health care is no exception to the need for ongoing innovation, research, and development, this is easily overlooked in a public health care system such as ours, which tends to shield itself from such market forces. The ongoing fiscal restraint in which our health care system operates – which pre-dates, but is further aggravated by the pandemic – has had a particularly detrimental effect on research. When comparing it to managing the healthcare crisis of the day, all too often research is viewed as optional rather than fundamentally important for our ongoing success.

Over the years a strange culture has developed in Manitoba’s health care system, one which places strict and arbitrary divisions between providing service and investing in ongoing research and innovation. It could be argued that during times of crisis it is appropriate, and indeed necessary, to focus primarily on service delivery to the community. However, academic healthcare institutions such as ours, which are the traditional motors of biomedical research, begin to suffer from a pervasive and progressive atrophy in their innovation platforms and activities. Without these our academic hospitals and clinics cannot stay up to date in a rapidly changing world, and sustain delivery of cutting edge health services to Manitobans.

Thus, in our opinion, there needs to be a profound change in culture. We need to embrace research as an integral part of delivering state of the art healthcare. It is only then that tertiary care institutions such as HSC will be able to sustain their role and function as Shared Health’s flagship provincial “advanced care” center. This will require not only a cultural shift at all levels of administration and the full spectrum of health care professionals, but also that we overcome a complex web of arbitrary and outdated regulations that are widely recognized as major impediments to the conduct of clinical trials and studies, be they investigator driven or industry sponsored. Without such change, the ultimate losers remain our patients who are unable to benefit in a timely fashion from novel – and often the only available – therapeutic options.  

Notwithstanding these structural considerations, most would agree that research is expensive and time consuming. Clinicians and clinician scientists are often uniquely equipped to undertake clinical and translational research, as they effectively straddle the bench to bedside gap. But in order to do this successfully, they need the time to develop their ideas, and to establish logistically viable protocols that are seamlessly integrated with healthcare delivery. How should this research time commitment be remunerated equitably in a fee for service (FFS) system? In our current FFS environment, this is, and will remain, very challenging. The average yearly clinical income of an internist (general and subspecialists combined) is somewhere in the $450k range, and for many it is much higher and may well exceed double that sum. Full time PhD researchers, who compete with clinician researchers at the “big tables”, are remunerated at a fraction of this amount. Should clinicians with a major research commitment be remunerated at the level of their PhD researcher peers who undertake comparable initiatives? Or, alternatively, at the level of their FFS peers? Or somewhere in between?

Many FFS based institutions, including our own Department, are perceived as “buying” protected research time from their faculty, who would otherwise be engaged in lucrative service delivery careers. While this may be well intended, aiming to sustain a vibrant research environment and community, no Department will ever be able to remunerate research time equivalently to the FFS income a physician would be able to generate during the same amount of clinical time. It should also be noted that, as per our universities interpretation of the Canadian Revenue Agency’s rules, overhead funds cannot be used as salary support for physicians that contribute to the overhead, i.e. to pay for protected research time. The issue is further compounded by the large differences in FFS income between various subspecialties. We have tried to tackle this, but it has proven very challenging.

In all cases, FFS income increases with increasing clinical service provided – i.e. the more patients seen in a clinic or on a ward, the more FFS billings and income. We would argue that a similar principle should be applied to research income for clinician-investigators/scientists.  In other words, a researcher who consistently attracts national grant support and publishes in high impact journals should be remunerated incrementally for his/her time compared to one who does not achieve such benchmarks. This would need to acknowledge the vagaries of grant application success, and all dedicated researchers need to have sufficient time to succeed at the “big tables”, often with multiple resubmissions of revised applications. But they need to be in the game, dusting themselves off after a failure and generating a more competitive application. The Department as a whole profits much more from investing its limited research budget into clinician researchers who have this tenacious “phenotype”, and who consistently deliver the best effort and output. In today’s world, this output can actually be measured reasonably objectively with established metrics. Conversely, ongoing investment in researchers who are unlikely to ever be able to meet these benchmarks, irrespective of how much time or effort is given, seems wasting the Department’s scarce research budget.

In this context, it is important to mention the large number of faculty members in our Department who have a clinician-teacher job description. They can be key supporters and facilitators of the research enterprise. In their role as educators who provide mentorship as they deliver state of the art healthcare to their patients, they are also in a position to provide seamless integration of research activities in the context of clinical care delivery. The metrics for this role differ from that of career researchers, and they need to be appropriately acknowledged in publications, promotion, and awards. Unlike their clinician investigator/scientist peers, income generation in the context of service delivery is usually not an issue and they are unlikely to require Departmental support for their supportive research contributions.

We know that we have opened a can of worms with this blog. At this point, we are not presenting solutions, but rather stimulating an important and timely discussion. We are looking forward to hearing your comments – please respond in the blog, so others can read and chime in.

Eberhard L. Renner MD FRCPC FAASLD, Professor and Head – Department of Internal Medicine, Max Rady College of Medicine, University of Manitoba

Hani El-Gabalawy, MD FRCPS FCAHS, Professor of Medicine and Immunology Associate Head – Research, Department of Internal Medicine, Endowed Rheumatology Research Chair, University of Manitoba