A WAVE of outrage from the general practice community won’t be enough to save either the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) program, nor the Primary Health Care Research and Information Service (PHCRIS), unless funding “white knights” can be found before 30 June of this year.
The director of the BEACH program, Professor Helena Britt, and the director of PHCRIS, Professor Ellen McIntyre, were informed last week by the Department of Health and Ageing that there would be no government funding for them beyond the end of the financial year.
“We were told in November that there would be a competitive grant round coming but it never came, and we were never given any reasons for the defunding,” Professor Britt told MJA InSight.
“The uproar [from the general practice community] has just been amazing and I’m so proud of that, but I’m also especially sad.”
BEACH has been running for 18 years, although the data collection system it uses has been developed over 30 years at the University of Sydney. It has involved commitment from over 11 000 GPs and currently holds about 1.7 million GP-patient encounter records.
“BEACH has been the only continuous national study of general practice in the world which relies on random samples of GPs, links management actions to the exact problem being managed, and provides extensive measurement of prevalence of diseases, multimorbidity and adverse medication events,” Professor Britt wrote in an official statement about the closure.
BEACH needs $1.5 million to survive for another year, Professor Britt told MJA InSight.
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The University of Sydney (UoS) is in talks with Professor Britt to explore the chances of the university keeping BEACH afloat, at least in the short term, but no decision has been made at the time of MJA InSight going to press.
Professor Lyndal Trevena, head of the Discipline of General Practice at UoS, said BEACH was “a priceless gem” and that the GP community was “in shock and disbelief” at its defunding.
“[The government] will spend $8.7 billion on general practice, but won’t spend a little over $1 million to evaluate it?” Professor Trevena told MJA InSight.
“We continue to hope that the government will realise its error, but in the meantime we obviously want to try and save what we can, although we can’t fully fund it in the long term.
“If [Professor Britt and her staff] have the energy and stamina to move forward then we want to do what we can to help.
“It’s a tragedy that it’s come to this.”
BEACH isn’t the only program in the firing line.
The Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute, based at the Australian National University, was closed down on 31 March to “enable an orderly transition to APHCRI’s host organisation, the Research School of Population Health (RSPH) at ANU and to ensure that remaining research contract commitments are met”.
PHCRIS will also close at the end of June, unless $1.4 million can be found from other funding sources to cover the loss of government money.
Professor McIntyre told MJA InSight that “it wasn’t a very good place to be”.
“But we haven’t given up,” she said. “We’ve got till the end of June.”
The 2016 PHC Research Conference, scheduled for 8-9 June, would go ahead as planned, Professor McIntyre said.
“We are absolutely committed to that. There is real value in the exchange of information that goes on at the conference.”
The frustrating thing, Professor McIntyre said, was that PHCRIS involvement with the Department of Health had deepened and become very positive over the past 15 years.
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PHCRIS was established in 1995 as the National Information Service (NIS) before the name change in 2001. PHCRIS generates, manages and shares research, information and knowledge about primary health care to accelerate the impact of research and evidence in policy and practice, working with four key stakeholder groups – policy makers, practitioners, researchers and consumer advocates.
The human side of the closures is weighing heavily on both Professor Britt and Professor McIntyre.
BEACH staff have been working on 3-month appointments for the past 18 months, Professor Britt said, and it had been a “year-to-year” proposition since 1993 for her.
“We are devastated,” she said of the 14 staff and student volunteers involved with BEACH. “The five academics involved, most of them came up through the ranks and BEACH has been their whole life.”
The closure of BEACH will mean the loss of 155 years of general practice research experience, she said.
It also means that data collected in the past year by BEACH will go unpublished, along with the annual BEACH report and the “decade of Australian general practice activity” report for this year.
“I know a lot of GPs recognise the value of BEACH,” Professor Britt said. “They know we are independent that we identify things that need to be improved.
“We would have liked to close professionally by having enough time to get the data out, because GPs have put their time and commitment in over the past year, and now there will nothing to show for it.
“We have 10 papers under review, and another four ready for submission, but they won’t get out now, because we can’t respond to reviewers.
“We’re in mourning.”
PHCRIS has a staff of 13, Professor McIntyre said.
“I’m feeling very distressed for them. As a team we’ve worked very well together. They’re remaining very professional and are working very hard on the conference. We’re helping them through Flinders University to find other jobs.
“But we’re also actively looking for support and we welcome any suggestions.
“We can’t do what we do without people being involved.”
The Department of Health was contacted for comment for this story but had not responded by deadline.