Meeting our health‑care needs

How health human resources (HHR) can work to improve patient health

- July 28, 2011

Gail Tomblin Murphy is co-lead of the Pan Canadian Health Human Resources Network (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Gail Tomblin Murphy is co-lead of the Pan Canadian Health Human Resources Network (Bruce Bottomley photo)

As a professor in the School of Nursing, Gail Tomblin Murphy is used to answering tough questions. But as the co-recipient of a prestigious health human resources grant, she’s now the one asking the tough questions.  

As co-lead of a team with Ivy Bourgeault of the University of Ottawa and Morris Barer of the University of British Columbia, Dr. Tomblin Murphy secured $600,000 over the next three years for the Pan Canadian Health Human Resources Network (CHHRN); one of only two networks funded under the most recent Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Network Catalyst Grant competition.

Taking everything into account

Health human resources (HHR), a relatively young field of health research, involves matching the needs of the patients with the services the workforce can provide and asking the questions needed to improve the existing health-care system.

“This type of work is really focused on the needs of people, and asking questions like, ‘What kind of health care do they need?’ and ‘Who is the health team that needs to be looking after them?’” explains Dr. Tomblin Murphy.

“In the past, planning has been done by comparing the number of health care workers to the number of people we have. But this doesn’t consider how sick people are, their individual health care needs, or how efficiently we’re delivering care. This is what the members of CHHRN are trying to change.”

Dr. Tomblin Murphy uses obesity as an example of where improvements can be made in the health care system through HHR and how using this proactive approach can help save lives.

“Sometimes it’s not about treating the illness itself but rather trying to prevent it from happening in the first place by allocating our resources properly,” she explains. “For example, we know that obesity can cause diabetes, various heart conditions, and depletion of self-confidence among other things. Instead of waiting around for people to get sick, why don’t we look at having more health-care workers in schools, in the communities, working with parents and their children?”   

Always asking questions

Dr. Tomblin Murphy began her career at Dal by working in the School of Nursing as the associate director for the undergraduate program. It was during this time she began investigating a whole other element to health care.

“As associate director I would get questions like, how many nursing seats do we need for next year?” she explains. “Well, I didn’t have an answer for this and so I started asking questions like, how do we figure out how many nurses we need? What are nurses being asked to do? What are the health status indicators? I assumed someone would have the answer to this and alas, nobody did.”

She then went on to do her PhD at the University of Toronto where she focused on needs-based HHR planning. She’s still connected with that campus today, as co-investigator in the Nursing and Health Services Research Unit with the Faculty of Nursing. She’s also the director of Dalhousie’s World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre on Health Workforce Planning and Research and cross appointed with the Department of Community Health & Epidemiology. She’s also consulted with health districts throughout the province on finding new ways to deliver health care efficiently and effectively.

Proof points

All her education and experience has led Dr. Tomblin Murphy to exactly this point where she’s in a position to ask the tough questions about health-care planning and education and work toward finding answers.

“How do we know what should be in a curriculum? How do we know what clinical studies should entail?” she says. “The funds received from this grant will be used to enhance learning, to bring evidence to bear, and to share information with all stakeholders. It will bring education, government and health care workers together so that at the end of the day we have the best health care we can provide.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Tomblin Murphy is optimistic the collaboration between the three universities involved in the Pan Canadian Health Human Resources Network will provide enough research to encourage improvements in the current health care system.

“Through a network like this we can share information across the country and learn from each other,” she says. “By working together to share best practices, the focus on health planning will be on the needs of the patients and families.” 


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