Erin Michalak, BC SUPPORT Unit Patient Engagement Methods Cluster Lead

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Erin Michalak

Congratulations to Erin Michalak and her research team, who were awarded a Gold Leaf Prize from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2019!

The recipients of the award were announced on May 23rd, 2019. Erin and her “Collaborative Research Team to study psychosocial issues in Bipolar Disorder” (CREST.BD) were recognized for their ground-breaking work in patient engagement initiatives over the past decade.

While this award is, in itself, a spectacular achievement, how does it relate to the work of BC AHSN and the BC SUPPORT Unit?

Erin has been involved with the Unit as the Patient Engagement Methods Cluster Lead since fall 2017. Her work studying the science of patient-oriented research through the lens of patient engagement relates closely with CREST.BD (which engages a wide range of stakeholders – especially those with patient expertise – in research into bipolar disorder to improve health, quality of life, treatment interventions and stigma reduction), which has blossomed into a nationwide network since starting in 2007.


The work of CREST.BD and by association, the BC SUPPORT Unit, will assist the more than half a million Canadians who live with bipolar disorder (BD), a long-term and potentially disabling mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings from depression to mania. 


“There’s a synergistic relationship between our work at CREST.BD and my role as the Patient Engagement Methods Cluster Lead,” she said in a recent interview. “Many of the lessons we’ve learned about effective patient engagement in research in CREST.BD have had utility for my BC SUPPORT Unit role, which is to support the advancement of methods for patient engagement in research provincially, across diverse health conditions and contexts.”

Erin noted that the experience that she’s gaining in collaboration with BC SUPPORT Unit stakeholders is equally valuable for CREST.BD. The Unit provides her with a unique platform to connect with diverse stakeholders – researchers, patient partners, clinicians and health system decision makers – across British Columbia.

“The networking opportunities are phenomenal,” she noted. “I’m privileged to have so many opportunities to learn from the Unit’s other Methods Cluster Leads and the BC SUPPORT Unit leadership and stakeholders more broadly.”

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Erin Michalak (left) and CREST.BD research coordinator Caden Poh (right) at the University of British Columbia. Image credit: Paul Joseph/UBC.

There is another connection between the award and CREST.BD: CIHR is also a major funder of the BC SUPPORT Unit through its national Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR).

“This award is a statement about how CIHR values effective patient-oriented research, as well as a testament to the remarkable zeitgeist occurring in this area internationally,” said Erin in an interview with the UBC Faculty of Medicine. “Authentic involvement of people with lived experience in research [a key objective of SPOR] requires creativity, bravery and out-of-the-box thinking…It can take extra time and dedication, but patient-oriented research…can result in science of higher quality and higher impact.”

The Gold Leaf Prize package consists of an award of $100,000 and a commemorative medal. At the time of the announcement, the research team had already begun to plan what to do with this significant funding boost.


A continual challenge for community-based participatory researchers is securing funds for patient engagement in the early stages of research.


“We’re deciding as a group how use these funds for maximum impact,” Erin noted. They’re incredibly important for us, because there is so much latitude for how we can leverage the funding.

A continual challenge for community-based participatory researchers is securing funds for patient engagement in the early stages of research – for example, in setting research agendas, or for paying patient partners to co-produce funding applications.

“Our research team’s five-year strategic plan runs from 2014 to 2019; part of the funds will help support the community consultations needed to craft a strategic plan for the network for the work that now lies ahead of us.”

Sustained, flexible funding is also needed at the later stages of research, when a team is invested in maintaining community partnerships, and continuing to move the results of their work into action and impact after traditional operating funds have been allocated.

“A proportion of the funding also will be earmarked for providing stipends for peer researchers and patient partners, and some for trainees,” Erin said.


The BC SUPPORT Unit provides Erin with a unique platform to connect with diverse stakeholders across British Columbia.


As for the medal? Erin and a number of her team members will travel to Ottawa to receive the medal from the Governor General of Canada on June 20th.

Ultimately, the work of CREST.BD and by association, the BC SUPPORT Unit, will assist the more than half a million Canadians who live with bipolar disorder (BD), a long-term and potentially disabling mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings from depression to mania. The team’s collaborative research and knowledge exchange will continue to produce innovative evidence on optimal treatments for people with BD, as well as advancing the science of patient engagement in health research more broadly.

“Mutual respect and valuing of diverse expertise can be fostered over time with the right people, supports and structures,” Erin noted. “We’re working shoulder-to-shoulder with diverse stakeholders to support co-learning, advance research to tangibly improve lives and the Canadian health care system. And we’re so excited for the work that lies ahead of us.”