health systems diagram

Sept. 3, 2021

UCalgary first university to lead innovative national health systems training program

Fellowship directs scholarly research at real-world challenges to improve health care systems

When Dr. Kiran Pohar Manhas, PhD, approached the end of her first postdoctoral fellowship, she knew that she wanted to continue doing research that would make an impact. But, her path forward wasn’t immediately clear. Manhas was committed to staying in Alberta, but was otherwise open to new opportunities — and not just purely academic ones. 

Enter the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Health System Impact (HSI) Fellowship program. The annual national program pairs postdocs and doctoral trainees with mentors in health system organizations. They have impact-oriented learning experiences and undergo training that accelerates their skill development and prepares them to address pressing and complex health system challenges.

“I recognized that this fellowship was an opportunity to get my foot in the door with the health system, while still building my CV for an academic career if that was what I wanted,” says Manhas. She was accepted to join the prestigious 46-person cohort, completed her HSI fellowship in 2019, and immediately accepted a position with Alberta Health Services.

Novel training, networking, and collaboration opportunities

Starting in fall 2021, past and present HSI fellows will have the opportunity to learn from Manhas and other program alumni as part of the new HSI Fellowship National Cohort Training Program. The program is spearheaded by scholars from the University of Calgary and led by Dr. Deborah Marshall, PhD, HSI fellow academic supervisor and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. This is the first time the training portion of the fellowship has been hosted by an external group.

“We are eager to champion and advance the community of practice for the next generation of health services and policy researchers – advancing high-performing and patient-centred learning health systems across Canada,” says Marshall, Nominated Principal Applicant and HSI Fellow Academic Supervisor. “We have an amazing collaborative team co-led by academic faculty, health system mentors and HSI Alumna – I am honoured to be part of it.”

The training program provides HSI fellows, alumni fellows, and their supervisors with novel training, networking and collaboration opportunities that enhance their leadership competency and ability to apply their advanced research skillset to pressing and complex health system challenges.

“We are honoured to be the first university to host this amazing learning opportunity that combines research excellence with real-world health care challenges," says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). "This program builds a bridge between academia and the health system to realize immediate benefit."  

The national HSI cohort consists of 146 alumni and more than 50 incoming fellows. It involves more than 80 health system partners and more than 20 universities. In previous years the training was predominantly delivered in a multi-day retreat, but due to COVID-19, CIHR pivoted to a virtual training program. 

“The training program will enhance the experiential learning that fellows gain through their work, and foster a greater sense of community amongst fellows, alumni, and their mentors,” says Elena Lopatina, HSI alumna and one of the co-leads who championed the successful proposal. “We’re proud of the flexible, accessible program we’ve developed, and are excited to work with fellows to ensure they are getting the professional development and support that they need.” Lopatina will serve both as a core member of the program leadership team and participating as a post-doctoral fellow. 

Collaborative learning experiences and bold new ideas

Manhas speaks highly of the training she received in the HSI Program. The UCalgary alumna paired up with Tracy Wasylak, senior program officer of Strategic Clinical Networks with Alberta Health Services, who mentored Manhas as she developed a research program focused on a new model of care for community rehabilitation.

“It was an amazing learning experience and such a unique opportunity,” says Manhas. “It would have been much harder to have an experience like this without the program. Tracy made sure that every door that needed to be opened was opened. She showed me how it is possible to study rigorously, but collaboratively, within the health system.”

The success of the partnership also includes the fellows.

“HSI fellows like Kiran are key contributors to the positive transformation of health systems across Canada,” says Wasylak. “They bring bold new ideas and the drive to accomplish great things that can have an immediate impact on the quality of care and support Canadians receive in our systems.”

Since completing her fellowship, Manhas has stayed engaged with the program because she strongly believes in its value and is invested in what it stands for.

“It can be a win-win situation where the health system has more highly qualified personnel, and it’s a win for the fellows because you are exposed to the health system, and you get to have an impact and advance the science right away,” she says. 

In her current role as assistant scientific director of the Neurosciences, Rehabilitation and Vision Strategic Clinical Network at Alberta Health Services, Manhas is using the skills she honed in her fellowship, including knowledge translation, advancing research, and making evidence-informed, systems-focused positive change. She encourages health-focused postdocs and PhD trainees who are undecided on their career paths to consider applying.

“While my current role is within the health system, it’s a lot of things you would picture a professor doing. It’s team-based and user-driven research,” she says. “There are so many different career paths out there and this fellowship is a great way to shed light on all the different things we can do.”

Deborah A. Marshall is a professor in the departments of Community Health Sciences and Medicine at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. She is also the Arthur J.E. Child Chair of Rheumatology Outcomes Research and former Canada Research Chair, Health Services and Systems Research, and is a member of the O’Brien Institute of Public Health, the McCaig Institute of Bone and Joint Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.