18 November 2020
For Adrian Fox, a leading Melbourne-based liver and pancreas surgeon, clinical research is a small part of his weekly routine.
I spend 95 per cent of my time doing the surgical work, and maybe five percent of my time doing research – usually that’s after eight o’clock, when the kids are in bed, or on the weekends
Four years ago, Fox identified a real flaw in the system.
Clinicians were putting in those extra hours but operating without the infrastructure and support required to really maximise their research output and improve patient outcomes.
He approached Kooyong former CEO James Ostroburski with the proposition that ultimately led to the birth of the Surgeon’s Impact Fund, formally launched in 2018.
“I said to James, ‘we would like your help to set up a philanthropic structure’. I’ve had a long association with James. I knew that he had a strong and significant history in providing lending solutions to doctors and in philanthropy, so I pitched it to him to see if we could do something,” Fox recalls.
Philanthropic funding coming into the medical system was controlled almost exclusively by bigger institutions. Together with Michael Hii, a Melbourne-based oesophago-gastric and bariatric surgeon, Fox and Ostroburski set out to pioneer a new model.
If they could provide a direct avenue for donations and fundraising initiatives, Fox could see an opportunity to “really fuel our ideas and our dreams to build bigger and better research”.
For Ostroburski and Kooyong Group, the prospect was perfect:
The concept of giving is a theme that is at the centre of Kooyong Group’s operating structure. We believe strongly in supporting the community that is supporting us. It’s part of our DNA, we’re philanthropic by nature
With the help of the unprecedent backing from Kooyong Group, the fund has successfully expanded since its launch two years ago and now boasts the network of expertise and support that Fox and Hii were craving.
It employs Clinical Research Assistant Lilian Taylor, who helps to collate information and run clinical trials, and contributes to the ongoing employment of Emily Banting as a Cancer Nurse Coordinator.
To help the fund continue to develop, Kooyong Group have also donated a part-time resource in Emily Myer, Kooyong Group’s manager of partnerships and philanthropy.
“The fund is a vehicle to get stuff happening and to harness the work everyone is putting in after-hours, on the weekend or when they’re supposed to be on holiday,” Fox says.
The projects already up and running, Fox says, have to the potential to “make life for cancer patients a little bit better”.
The HIIT (high-intensity interval training) Cancer Project, a randomised trial, fits that billing.
It is testing whether or not pre- and post-operative high-intensity interval training can boost a patient’s tolerance to chemotherapy and surgery, thereby boosting their recovery. Both Taylor and Banting work on the project, and Hii says the early signs are promising.
“The early results indicate that people who are able to do this during an episode of care have the shortest hospital stays, with less surgical complications, and they recover better,” he says.
Then there’s the DISCO (Do synbIoticS reduCe infectiOns) study, which is testing the emerging body of evidence that suggests specific probiotics, if administered prior to major surgeries, can reduce post-operative infection by 50 per cent.
“Now, in surgery, that is absolutely astronomical,” Hii says.
“We’re usually working on trying to improve things by one or two or five per cent. A 50 per cent reduction is literally mind blowing. We’re running a trial to assess the feasibility of those probiotics and trying to get baseline Australian data in place.”
The fund is also enabling leading Australian surgeons to train overseas via an ongoing annual scholarship program.
The inaugural recipient Matthew Read, completed a fellowship with a focus on oesophageal cancer and robotic surgery at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He is now back working alongside Hii at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.
“Matthew worked with us as a trainee before he left, but overseas fellows are unpaid. They get a lot of experience and learn a lot. But it’s entirely unfunded by the receiving hospital, so they have to support themselves,” Hii says.
Kooyong Group, through their investment in the fund, plan to continue to help Australian surgeons overcome that issue, thereby allowing the import of world-leading knowledge.
The Surgeons Impact Fund Scholarship has given me unparalleled opportunities to learn from internationally renowned experts within my surgical speciality and to collaborate with leading researchers to optimise treatments for oesophageal cancer
Though elective surgery has been on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slowed Read’s output, Hii is excited about what his colleague has learnt overseas.
We would envisage that the skills he’s developed would ensure that the cancer service we’re providing is world class. It’ll help guide us in the future, with respect to incorporating robotic technology, too.
For Fox, the fact there are already tangible outcomes, like Read’s training, is a vital part of the fund’s ethos and a credit to Kooyong Group’s willingness to support it.
“It’s important for donors to see their money go from their pocket, into an actual project that has an output. It’s a very low budget, and very lean operation, and without Kooyong Group’s support, none of these advances would be possible. It’s because of Kooyong Group’s assistance that all the money that comes in basically gets put into projects and ultimately into improving patient outcomes,” he says.