In a year of tragedy, anxiety, cancelled plans, eye-watering tests and time apart, isolation has taken up residence as a collective state of mind. It is, perhaps, what we mean when we reach for that truism, “the new normal”. So it feels odd that in one corner of health and research, isolation is in retreat.

At NSW Regional Health Partners we often struggle to summarise what we do. That comes with being one of the nation’s 10 health research translation centres – rather new entities that, for medical research, are bridges to better health outcomes for Australians, and cross-pollinators for the interests of researchers, universities and health services.

Our 8 partners are the Hunter New England, Central Coast and Mid North Coast health districts, the universities of Newcastle and New England, the Calvary Mater Newcastle, the Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network, and Hunter Medical Research Institute.

It is understandable if in the beginning, while always hopeful and supportive, they didn’t quite know what we were. But if not, they do now. After a year no one saw coming, we think our ambitions have never been more aligned.

It has been made glaringly obvious by the pandemic that a year is a long time in health.

In 2020, hospitals’ intensive care unit capacities expanded, and health services mobilised to carry out mass testing for the coronavirus. Some innovations were subtle while others were obvious, in models of care such as telehealth and virtual hospitals. Soon, perhaps, we will know their true value. For instance, how effective are they compared with usual care? Where are the best telehealth investments?

These solutions were crafted by our partners and frontline health workers who know what patients need. But we have been delighted to play a crucial role. Health services need access to experts who deliver evaluation alongside innovation, so decision-makers know how to understand value. So how, this year, have we fostered precious evaluation expertise?

Our embedded Economist (eE) program builds that capacity. Backed by the Medical Research Future Fund, we have discovered and deployed ways to move economics from the periphery to the core of health workers’ thinking. The program is being delivered in five sites across NSW and South Australia, to the benefit of our partners.

Through 11 online workshops in the final quarter of the year, the eE Community of Practice connected the expertise of five economists with five health networks, two hundred participants and more than two thousand total attendees. Who knows what offshoots will grow from the richness of those sessions, and how many lives will be improved?

We also make no secret of our belief that in the fight against isolation for rural Australia, the health sector needs to wake up its own localised might.

In November 2019, before the pandemic and the recession, 62 of the country’s foremost health practitioners and researchers met in Alice Springs to form the rurally-focused Spinifex Network. We engineered that summit, and the network.

Its aims – to secure dedicated funding for rural health and medical research, to connect rural researchers and academics, to amplify rural voices in Medical Research Future Fund missions – are ours, and what we want for our partners.

One reason for the Spinifex Network is to reform a tin-eared attitude to the importance of health and medical research as drivers of regional economies and communities in Australia. In the face of everything in 2020 we have stood as one with our partners in an affirming, bedrock belief that, whatever other sectors might claim, health anchors the regions.

The threads that run through the Spinifex Network also bind us to our partners. In 2020 we are proud that they, and we, began to enmesh regional, rural and remote priorities into the national research agenda. Together, in a pandemic, we have continued to build capacity for rural clinicians in research and for health services in evaluation. And we have proudly, through it all, championed a rural prosperity mindset.

As green shoots of our old lives emerge – subject to the next hotspot, of course, or border closure – it has been a pivotal year for NSW Regional Health Partners. We feel as though some things have been forged, even as isolation took hold around us. On the cusp of 2021, we’re determined to remind our partners that, as in 2020, we’ll be stronger together.

Christine Jorm, Director NSW Regional Health Partners