World Arthritis Day marked each year on 12 October aims to raise awareness of rheumatic diseases and to encourage people living with rheumatic diseases, their carers, families and the general public to seize every opportunity to take action and make a difference to the quality of life of people with rheumatic diseases.
To mark the day and to acknowledge the amazing work being done to help lower the burden of those living with rheumatic diseases we introduce you to Solubility client Dr Tegan Smith, CEO of OPAL Rheumatology Ltd who shares her passion to improve the health outcomes of patients with rheumatic diseases through audit and research.
Meet Dr Tegan Smith, CEO of OPAL Rheumatology Ltd
“Science is about bringing brilliant, passionate people together to make the world a better place.”
– Tegan Smith, CEO.
OPAL Rheumatology is an independent Australian not-for-profit clinical research organisation and the custodian of one of the largest datasets of patients with rheumatic diseases in the world, containing de-identified data captured from 104 rheumatologists and 200,000 unique patients contributing their medical record data for research into the real-world management and unmet needs of patients with rheumatic diseases, including arthritis. With insights from over 1 million clinical consultations over 10 years, the OPAL dataset holds immense power for research.
What is your current role and how did your career lead you to it?
I originally wanted to become a wine maker, but I ended up with a PhD in male infertility which led me to becoming a scientist at Harvard Medical School searching for novel male contraceptives. I then went into medical communications in San Francisco and I still remember my first day when my manager told me I’d be working on a big rheumatoid arthritis account. My response was “what’s that?” I spent the next year learning about arthritis and generating education and support materials for doctors and patients. We would often reference data out of Australia from a research group called OPAL, and being an Aussie in America, I would be beaming with pride every time even though I had no idea who these people were. Little did I know what was coming.
A year later the OPAL board became my client when I transferred to the Sydney office of the company. Living in Silicon Valley, I absorbed a lot of knowledge around tech, and it implanted a culture of thinking big which put me in a unique position to help OPAL. Soon after the board asked me if I would be interested in leading OPAL and of course I said yes.
What does World Arthritis Day mean to you?
World Arthritis Day is a very kind gesture to raise awareness, giving people living with arthritis the opportunity to feel the support of the community for the day. While we have many effective treatments, there is no cure. Arthritis is not just an old person’s disease either, and it is often not obvious that people are living with arthritis. Even patients whose disease is under control can still experience pain, fatigue, anxiety, flares, the annoyance of injections, medication side effects, the costs of healthcare – these are the things we don’t see that can have an enormous impact on quality of life which persists as the clock ticks over to October 13. World Arthritis Day is a great way to bring these challenges into consciousness and encourage a little more kindness and compassion.
What do you consider to be the greatest challenge facing those treating and researching Arthritis today?
As with all research, the biggest challenge is a lack of funding. OPAL has built one of the greatest resources for arthritis research in the world with no public support, despite musculoskeletal conditions costing Australian’s more than $50 billion every year. We know how much more we could do for our patients to improve their outcomes using the infrastructure we have in place, our reach and our expertise, yet we simply lack the funding to do it.
How do you distinguish yourself/your brand from your competitors?
OPAL was designed for efficiency, longevity, and quality. In contrast to similar initiatives, our data is captured during the routine clinical consultation using a custom built electronic medical record, so our doctors and patients don’t need to find the time or enthusiasm to log in at the end of the day to transfer their data over to a separate database. For this reason OPAL has celebrated 14 straight years of growth and uninterrupted data capture, which is essential for understanding chronic, progressive diseases. Our data is also structured, and it comes out “research ready” so we can invest our resources in actually doing research rather than deciphering messy, non-standardised clinical notes.
As a group, OPAL’s 104 member rheumatologists have 3,000 years of collective experience on the front-line managing arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. We are acutely aware of the gaps in the knowledge, and our research model means we can review the results of a study and apply our findings to the very next patient to walk into the room.
In your current role what’s the best business decision you’ve made?
We have an incredible team powering OPAL and I make my best business decision everyday by giving our team the space to be brilliant by encouraging independent thought whilst working towards a common goal of improving the lives of our patients. This is what science is all about – bringing brilliant, passionate people together and using our diverse experience and unique problem solving abilities to make the world a better place.
Having experienced the startup journey, what’s the one thing you’d do differently?
I wouldn’t change a thing. It has been a wild ride, but it is this ambiguity that makes start up life so exhilarating. OPAL’s vision is so wholesome, and I never struggle to come back for more.
Where to for OPAL from here?
OPAL’s big focus now is understanding how arthritis impacts quality of life, like fatigue, poor sleep, mood, and pain. Previously these assessments were incompatible with routine care due to the burden of paperwork that questionnaires introduce, but OPAL has developed an innovative way to securely send questionnaires to the patient to complete prior to the consultation which is automatically deposited in their medical record, and improves clinical efficiency, allowing more patients to be seen in a day. We have an 85% patient engagement rate so it is clear that this is information that patients find important to share with their rheumatologist, and we can now match this with the clinical characteristics of the disease and medications.
OPAL also has one of the largest cohorts of patients with poorly understood conditions with few effective treatment options such as lupus and scleroderma, so we are heavily invested in moving the needle for these patients as well. There’s a lot we don’t know about the most effective ways to manage a lifetime of these conditions, but OPAL is working tirelessly to uncover every insight contained in our vast dataset.
Solubility has assisted OPAL Rheumatology with legal issues since mid-2015 and is delighted to assist OPAL Rheumatology to bring its vision and expertise to improve the health outcomes of patients living with rheumatic diseases.
You can connect with Dr Tegan Smith and learn more about OPAL Rheumatology here or click here to get in touch with our team at Solubility. Also you can follow Solubility on LinkedIn and Solubility on twitter.
We look forward to seeing you again for some more Everyday IP.
Cover image: Photo by Ritika S on Unsplash