“On a front line of health services” – Professor Sullivan delivers inaugural lecture

Wednesday 7 June 2023
Professor Frank Sullivan in St Salvator’s Quadrangle after his lecture.

On 31 May, Director of Research Professor Frank Sullivan delivered his inaugural lecture entitled, “On a front line of health services.” Providing the opening remarks, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Sally Mapstone DBE, FRSE outlined Professor Sullivan’s distinguished clinical and academic career and numerous contributions to the University as Professor of Primary Care, Director of the Sir James Mackenzie Institute for Early Diagnosis (2019-2021), and Director of Research. Dean of Medicine Professor David Crossman provided the vote of thanks.

Professor Sullivan reflected on his career, drawing lessons on how to strengthen primary-care systems from his four decades as an academic GP. Consistently dedicated to advancing evidence-based practice, he has published over 327 primary-care research papers, focusing on community-based trials and the use of health informatics. Prior to joining the University in 2017, some of Professor Sullivan’s key positions included clinical director of the Scottish School of Primary Care (1997-2014); NHS Tayside Professor of Research & Development in General Practice and Primary Care (1998-2014); inaugural Gordon F. Cheesbrough Research Chair at North York General Hospital, Toronto; and director of the University of Toronto’s Practice Based Research Network: UTOPIAN.

Drawing on this wealth of experience, Dr Sullivan focused on the role medical schools can play in bolstering primary-care. He highlighted the need to both attract more doctors into general practice and prevent existing GPs from leaving the profession.

To address the former issue, Professor Sullivan stressed the importance of showcasing the intellectual challenge posed by a general-practice career, improving GP placements, and promoting parity of esteem for all medical teachers. Universities are well placed to both facilitate improved clinical training and present general practice as an intellectually rigorous profession.

Discussing the recent surge in GPs retirements, Professor Sullivan highlighted the contemporary challenges these clinicians face, such as the spread of medical misinformation online, the complexities of telemedicine, and the increasing prevalence of multimorbidity. In the context of such stressors, he underscored the importance of providing opportunities for GPs to supplement their clinical work with teaching and research. Expanding their scope of practice beyond direct patient care, he argued, would improving clinicians’ wellbeing and in turn extend their time spent working in and contributing to local communities.

Professor Sullivan also discussed the development of primary-care research networks over the past 25 years, emphasising their role in facilitating coordinated research and leveraging large healthcare databases. Key to the success of such networks, he noted, is a practice culture that values and rewards research. This includes supporting the methodological and organisational skills and physical and financial infrastructure that research requires. These three pillars have guided his previous work establishing primary-care networks in Scotland and Canada, and advising on similar developments in Ireland, Germany, Norway and Australia.

Professor Sullivan also shared the results of several high-impact studies that emerged from primary-care networks, such as a reduction in unnecessary thyroid testing and late-stage diagnoses of lung cancer.  Such research has substantially improved clinical outcomes, as well as enhancing both the patient and provider experience.

Thus, despite the many challenges facing primary-care systems, Professor Sullivan struck a hopeful note as he outlined several solutions in which universities can play a key role. His insights offered a roadmap for addressing these difficulties and improving the patient and clinician experience through a commitment to evidence-based practice.

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