Improving their access to healthcare services and support – especially critical post-discharge care – has become the subject of a strategic long-term partnership between Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation (IHT) and Western Alliance, a collaboration of 6 public health services and 3 private hospitals, as well as Deakin and Federation universities and the Western Victoria Primary Health Network.

A signature project of the partnership is I-HEART, which aims to provide proactive and ongoing care to cardiac patients in regional areas. IHT researchers are working with 6 regional Victorian hospitals to co-design innovative solutions, while regional public health services are empowered to collaborate and share resources with large urban hospitals, including accessing telehealth support from cardiology teams at St Vincent’s and Austin Health.

Professor Andrea Driscoll leads the partnership on IHT’s behalf and says the I-HEART project hopes to touch the lives of people hospitalised with heart failure residing in Western Victoria.

“It’s looking at patients who have been diagnosed with a large heart, and have a very high mortality and rehospitalisation rate,” she says.

“We’re only halfway through the project but already we’ve been able to show that we’ve prevented hospitalisations and we’ve actually improved quality of life by reducing symptoms associated with heart failure, which are quite debilitating for patients living in the regional communities.

“By improving access to specialist services, we will actually keep them out of hospital and save lives.”

Western Alliance is the first Australian academic health science centre to focus on regional health outcomes. This enables the delivery of targeted programs such as I-HEART, says Western Alliance Executive Officer, Drew Aras.

“We do a bunch of different things particularly aimed at health professionals, around training, research and translation. We also fund research and support partnerships. We try to get people to collaborate together from the academic side and from the health side to do really important research in the region,” he says.

“When I started, IHT hadn’t kicked off yet, so we were dealing with all these fragmented centres within Deakin University, each with their own incredible expertise and really keen to support the work that we were doing. But when it came under the umbrella of IHT, it just made that work so much easier.”

Prof. Driscoll says the I-HEART project enables heart patients recently discharged from hospital to access weekly check-ins with qualified specialists.

“We implemented telehealth clinics within the regional areas. Normally patients living in these areas travel 2 to 3 hours to see a cardiologist. They are seen by the cardiologist, and then come all the way back home again,” she says.

“If it wasn’t for I-HEART, these patients wouldn’t be seen for several months. We see them within the first week of discharge with a nurse practitioner. The following week they’ll see a cardiologist. So they’re getting immediate access to those specialists, and they continue on in the clinic for a minimum period of 6 weeks. We also work very closely with the GP in the regional area.”

Colac Area Health Director of Research, Dr Laura Alston, says an underinvestment in regional and rural research has long been a driver of rural health inequities, and the IHT-Western Alliance partnership was “an absolutely vital step” to improving the health of Western Victoria communities.

“A project like I-HEART is about bringing evidence to the community and also ensuring evidence-based practice is delivered at the health service, which will improve patient care for heart failure for now and into the future,” she says.

“I-HEART brings that opportunity for our patients to access expertise in Melbourne, particularly around those cardiologists and the broader research team as well.”

It’s one of several intersecting projects under the umbrella of the partnership. IHT also directly supports research capability building program STaRR (Supporting Translational Research in Rural Regional areas) as well as DELIVER, a federally funded program designed to achieve better healthcare closer to home.

“We’ve had around 100 people go through STaRR in the last couple of years, and that’s been really successful,” Drew says.

“It’s led to not only people building their own capability within the health services particularly, but to actually going and doing research that has had an impact in their own health services and communities. IHT played a really positive role in getting that to where it is now.”

Project delivery is just one aspect of IHT’s broad-based partnership with Western Alliance. “There’s a whole lot of work that goes on before these projects actually receive funding,” Prof. Driscoll says.

IHT provides vital support to regional and rural health services in compiling and peer-reviewing applications for grants. “These grants are highly competitive and less than 10 per cent are successful,” she says. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done before you submit the grant to increase your success rate.”

The IHT-Western Alliance collaboration demonstrates that innovative research can be designed to suit the needs of communities in any location. IHT welcomes new industry partnerships and offers a number of ways to work together.

In the case of the Western Alliance partnership, a prerequisite was to support the translation of IHT’s evidence-based research into practical outcomes in regional healthcare settings.

“The good thing about IHT is that they’ve been really understanding that it is a co-design process, and not just bringing an idea or expertise and landing it on a place,” Drew says. “It’s about working together, particularly with their emphasis on trying to build the capability within the services.

“It’s so important that we make sure those 2 different sectors do work together, because they’ve got different expertise. And when you can combine that and it works well, it’s so important for healthcare in general. Our experience with IHT has shown that that can really be done.”

* The partnership between IHT and Western Alliance is also supported by Deakin Rural Health and the School of Nursing and Midwifery.