Is medical research too possessed by death?

3 minute read

A majority of funding goes to disease groups with high mortality, with few grants awarded to target the disability burden.

It’s the diseases most likely to kill you that continue to receive the most research funding in Australia, while the more common and burdensome ones – such as musculoskeletal conditions – continue to be mostly ignored.

According to a perspective, published this week in the MJA, the current funding allocation of the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) is defying its original aim of “improving the health and wellbeing of all Australians”.

This, they say, is because of the stronger focus on avoiding deaths rather than reducing overall disease burden and disability.

The researchers took data from the Australian Burden of Disease Study (2015), identifying 17 disease groups, and compared this to information on the MRFF website, to determine research funding patterns.

From 2016 to 30 September 2019, the MRFF awarded 231 grants with a total value of about $580 million.

“There was a strong positive association between MRFF funding and death burden, a weaker association when both death and disability were considered, and no association with disability burden,” the authors said.

More than half of all the disease-specific funding from the MRFF has been allocated to research in cancer, neurological conditions, cardiovascular disease and mental and substance use disorders.

By comparison, less than 3% of the total MRFF has been used to fund research into respiratory diseases, musculoskeletal conditions and gastrointestinal disorders.

This is despite the AIHW recognising arthritis and osteoporosis as one of the leading causes of disability in Australia.

With 25% of disability disease burden, musculoskeletal conditions are the leading cause of non-fatal disease burden in Australia but have received only 1% of MRFF funding, say the authors.

And this pattern of underfunding musculoskeletal research was consistent with grants awarded by the NHMRC from 2009-13, representing under 1% of project grants and just 5% of clinical trial funding.

Co-author Professor Chris Maher, from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, told the MJA that he hoped the analysis would get people thinking and talking about how the funds were allocated to best support the health and wellbeing of all Australians.

“In practical terms, this would appear to be a much more holistic concept of health than simply avoiding deaths,” he told the MJA.

Arthritis Australia spokesperson Franca Marine concurs with the paper, saying that funding for musculoskeletal conditions hasn’t improved with the MRFF, and if anything has fallen further behind in terms of investment.

“The most recent statistics show that musculoskeletal conditions are the most expensive in Australia at a cost of over $12 billion to the health system per year. That’s more than heart disease, mental health or cancer.

“So, we definitely endorse the fact that there’s not enough investment in musculoskeletal research in Australia. Funding is very low compared to both the burden and the cost of these conditions.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told the MJA that the MRFF is a priority-driven fund. “Priorities are determined by the independent Australian Medical Research Advisory Board, following an extensive public consultation process including the health and medical research sector, health service providers, and consumers,” they said.

Professor Maher told the MJA that with the MRFF now in its fifth year, now might be a good time to consider any “funding mismatches” that may be occurring.

“People need to think about the balance of spending the money – because it’s all our money – and how we would like that devoted to research to improve the health of all Australians.”

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