That’s why the Cancer Council of Victoria chose to partner with Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation (IHT), which brings a wealth of experience across the health system to the task of producing evidence-based research required by the Council to inform its policy and practice goals, and to secure ongoing funding for the Council’s crucial work.

When it comes to understanding the impact of cancer, the figures are astonishing. In 2020, the disease was responsible for more than 10 million deaths worldwide. More than 35,000 Victorians are diagnosed each year, with up to 11,000 succumbing to the illness. Cancer is estimated to cost the Australian health system more than $7.5 billion each year, while one in four patients pays at least $10,000 from their own pocket toward the cost of their care.

Tackling the disease head-on presents a complex challenge, says Cancer Council of Victoria CEO Todd Harper AM. “Cancer is something that affects all of humanity, so we want to focus on areas that deliver good value for money and improve equity,” Harper says.

“To do that, you really need to be focusing on the economic evidence, the health evidence, and the social evidence, and that’s what we’ve been able to achieve through our partnership with Deakin.”

After several one-off projects together, the Cancer Council of Victoria entered into an ongoing collaboration with IHT. A priority has been to develop a body of evidence-based research, demonstrating the benefits and value of investing in prevention and supportive care to key decision makers, policy makers and funders.

“Historically, society hasn’t invested in those areas to the level of their potential, so we wanted to make sure there was good health, societal and economic evidence to show the benefits of investing in these programs,” Harper says.

“What is often underappreciated by treasuries and central government agencies is that these programs are often delivering better value for money. We’ve been trying to make sure our key decision makers are aware of not only the health, but the broader societal and economic benefits of the types of programs the Cancer Council is operating.”

Associate Professor Nikki McCaffrey, Head of Cancer Research for Deakin Health Economics and a member of the School of Health and Social Development, has led the collaboration since 2017 and says a key priority has been co-developing an economic evidence base with community representatives. “Health economics can be very much tied to cost, and cost saving,” she says. “One of the things I always want to emphasise when I’m talking about economic evaluation is not just the cost side, it’s also about the benefits. What are we getting for the investment that we are making in that health area?”

Assoc. Prof. McCaffrey is embedded within the Cancer Council of Victoria’s team, helping to build strong cooperative relationships between the two organisations.

“It means I’m dialled into the work they’re undertaking, and that we can work together to see how to best use our economic information to develop and improve cancer services,” she says.

“The work creates real change and has led to the successful outcomes we’ve had, with greater investment in prevention, continued support and funding for services, and also our success in bringing in additional research funds to expand the work of the collaboration.”

Another component of the collaboration is a community advisory network empanelled by the Cancer Council Victoria and comprising members with lived experience of cancer. Deborah Kennedy works consultatively with Assoc. Prof. McCaffrey’s team to ensure program implementations are fit for purpose.

She says patients need certainty that services and programs will be a valuable use of their time, “particularly when a person has been ill and they’re outside their comfort zone”.

“Any service that is working with the community needs to make sure that community has had a say, to ensure it’s meeting their needs,” she says.

A two-way exchange of knowledge between the Cancer Council and IHT has been key to progressing many priority projects, Harper says.  “One of the great things that has been evident is that neither of us alone has all of the answers, but you put the two together and they’re very complementary,” he says.

“Some of the time when we’re moving into new areas, developing the evidence base is really important so that the work we’re doing isn’t just a pilot and then nothing happens afterward. What we’re about is sustaining effort over that longer period of time.”

Harper, who has worked for the Cancer Council of Victoria for almost 25 years, including eight years as the head of QUIT, also serves as a board member for IHT.

“I’ve benefited from being on the IHT board because it’s given me some insight into the breadth of their work,” he says. “I’m sure their partnership with us has also delivered the opportunity for IHT to be involved in some really interesting research which is helping to change health outcomes in Victoria and nationally, and even internationally. There’s something really special about that partnership which you can feel is elevating both organisations and helping to advance their work in a really productive way.”

The collaboration with the Cancer Council of Victoria is one of IHT’s many industry partnerships, demonstrating its ability to tailor research-driven outcomes, driving transformation for health systems and organisations.