Translating Research Into Innovations At Sunnybrook

By: Zoya Retiwalla | TRP | July 27, 2019

While success can be found by walking down many well-worn paths, our alumni prefer to challenge contemporary ideas while breaking ingenious paths.

Agnes Ryzynski, B.H.Sc., M.H.Sc.TR (left) and Fahad Alam, MD, FRCPC, MEd, M.H.Sc.TR (right) sharing their learnings and the powerful impact of the Translational Research framework in their work at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Picture Credit: Moni Kim

These days, in health science, it seems like everyone is talking about “Translation”. It comes in numerous flavours and seldom is the meaning agreed upon.

What is Translational Research?

Why is a TR framework important to problem solve and expedite innovations in health?

What is the goal of Translational Research?

These questions plague the field and are ongoing topics for debate. The Translational Research Program (TRP) at the University of Toronto is a graduate program designed for current and aspiring innovators to learn creative problem-solving skills, strategies, and competencies to translate scientific knowledge into applications that improve medicine, health, and health care. This bench to bedside approach attracts numerous people from a variety of different backgrounds.

Schematic representation of what Translational Research encompasses. Graphics credit: Zoya Retiwalla

Our main goal at the TRP is to challenge students to stretch their perspectives and open their minds to novel points of view. Two such self-directed learners, who enjoy dealing with complexities and navigating ambiguities to revolutionize the way they practice medicine, shared how their experiences with the Translational Research Program changed their way of life. As a part of our efforts to help answer the questions in the field of translational research, the TRP often organizes informational sessions. At one such session, “Translating Research Into Innovations” hosted at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, our alumna, Dr. Fahad Alam and student, Agnes Ryzynski spoke candidly about how the TR framework helped in shaping their potential.

Among the many roles that Fahad plays professionally, the three most important avenues are that he is an Anesthesiologist at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute, and the Director of Research at the Sunnybrook Simulation Centre. Equipped with a strong background in Medical Education, technology piqued Fahad’s interest and he started working with virtual, augmented, and mixed reality.

The exciting trials he was running, were viable and could be incorporated into the industry, however, a thought constantly bothered him, “how do you translate a great idea or invention into the clinic?” He realized that he needed to have a different approach to translation and that is when he met Joseph Ferenbok, the director of the TRP serendipitously. After initial hesitation, Fahad became a part of the first cohort of the TRP with hopes that this program would help him solve his ‘translation’ issue.

He based his Capstone project on the mental health of the residents and trainees at Sunnybrook. He recognized that the educational framework lacked mental health components, “mental health is a problem, a pretty big one,” says Fahad regarding why he zeroed down on a problem that is often under-represented. Geared with his technological background, he promptly collaborated with software developers and students, developing an application that he dreamed would help every resident.

During this process, he admits that he erred when it came to thorough checks for what already was in the market. To his dismay, there were thousands of Apps that didn’t help residents with their woes. He discerned that the cornerstone for any successful innovation is market research. “Instead of putting the cart behind the horse, I put the cart in front of the horse. This was my first real failure. I wasted six months of time during the program just to realize that I got nowhere. The truth is, I did get somewhere because through this failure I learned where not to go.”

The one thing he took from this failure was the need to talk to people. People who would directly be affected by mental health issues. “We cast a wide net and started talking to everyone,” he spoke regarding the reach of his project. It took his team months to identify the problem. Once the identification was complete, they set out to prioritize their framework. Keeping the residents and trainees at the center of their strategy, they created solutions; offering opportunities and workshops, guiding them on how to have difficult conversations with the faculty pertaining to mental health. Their efforts paid off almost instantaneously. The workshops were successful and the people involved in the process saw its benefits. Owing to this, their framework was immediately incorporated into the educational framework. In conclusion, his take on change and reforms was refreshing, “you cannot make change if everyone is happy. A status quo exists for a reason. So, if you are to make change, you will have to ruffle some feathers.”

Agnes shares Fahad’s passion for harnessing technology and innovation to explore Translational Research approaches in order to tackle contemporary healthcare issues. She has over twenty-four years of clinical experience as a Registered Respiratory Therapist and Anesthesia Assistant. Her work on Emergency Preparedness Education, Advance Care Planning, and Patient-Oriented Discharge committees allow her novel opportunities to create improved patient care. Having worked in a clinical setting, Agnes has encountered numerous clinical problems and has a knack for thinking on her feet. She calls her problem-solving skills “band-aid solutions” because some of the solutions worked, while with others the results weren’t as promising. She kept searching for a comprehensive framework that would take her from the beginning to the end, from the problem to the solution. It was this search that finally brought her to the Translational Research Program.

One of her favourite axioms is “you don’t know what you don’t know” and this rang true for her when she joined the program. “Through this program, I learned that I don’t know much, I thought I did. It has really humbled me. But what is amazing is that this journey of unlearning has taught me how to think differently. It has honestly changed my life,” she said regarding the impact this program has had on her.

She had solutions to any problem in no time, but what bothered her was the sustainability of those solutions. In a clinical setting, where time is of key importance, she wanted to work on solutions that were sustainable, successful, and reproducible. One of the projects she worked on during her first year at the TRP was based on “patient education.” Agnes and her team thought that the patients who came into the clinic needed better means of knowledge transfer. She soon realized, what she thought was a need wasn’t one at all. “We are incredibly siloed. There are people who have gotten chatbots made for patient education but we didn’t know. There are some fantastic solutions or ways to interact with patients but people aren’t connected.” That’s what prompted her to work on communication-based solutions.

The foremost thing she does when faced with any clinical problem now, is to ask the questions, “who is the central human? Do they have a need or am I making an assumption?” She maintains that talking to the person who is in the middle of a problem helps to find sustainable solutions.

She helps run numerous emergency preparedness education simulations. Agnes realized that fractured communication between paramedics and the hospital teams involved in emergency cases could pose serious risks to the patients. In view of prudence, she charted out emergency simulations. In spite of the initial roadblocks, once the ground teams saw the true potential of these simulations, the implementation was a smooth ride. “It takes a bit to convince people, but it’s so exciting because as frustrating as it was at first trying to be patient, I am thrilled because I’m seeing the changes occur, and I’m seeing people get excited about it and now there are more people coming in and wanting to work with our team because they are excited about how the process is working and how we are able to embed it and implement it.” She is thrilled to start her capstone project and will be tackling an important aspect of clinical settings – pre-operative anxiety.

The process of turning observations into interventions that could help improve lives is at the core of Translational Research. People are often engrossed in finding solutions that they fail to ask the correct questions. Our philosophy at the TRP is to raise actionable questions and prepare individuals to translate observations into innovations in order to improve healthcare.