12 to watch in 2012: Dr. Irfan Dhalla

January 9, 2012 

Toronto Star

By Theresa Boyle 

At only 35, Dr. Irfan Dhalla is a practising internist at a big city hospital, a professor at Canada’s largest medical school and a scientist at two research institutes.

His CV — already impressive and still growing — lists contributions to 35 peer-reviewed publications, 15 as lead author. He also has a master’s from the London School of Economics, where he graduated at the top of his class on a coveted Commonwealth Scholarship.

He’s clearly a clever guy, but ask him if he prefers research or bedside medicine and he’s flummoxed.

“Asking whether I prefer research or clinical care is a little like asking a runner whether he prefers his right or left leg,” he says. “I see the two parts as integrally linked. My research informs my clinical practice and vice versa.”

A case in point is a clinical trial he is leading aimed at lowering high hospital readmission rates for frail seniors. He gets frustrated when he discharges elderly patients from St. Michael’s Hospital and doesn’t know if they will get the follow-up care they need. Even more frustrating is when they soon land back in hospital.

So he has created something called a “virtual ward,” which provides intensive home care from doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, pharmacists and care coordinators. It helps seniors remain healthy at home, while saving the health system money.

The study won’t be finished until 2013, but policy-makers are already hailing it a success and want to see it expanded.

Another of Dhalla’s big interests is the field of “knowledge translation,” which is about ensuring health policy decisions are guided by evidenced-based research. St. Mike’s is a leader in this field and, with Dhalla’s help, last year rolled out a new initiative,healthydebate.ca. It’s an online magazine aimed at the public that drills down into important health issues — for example, whether women in their 40s should get mammograms. The aim is to advance debate and affect health policy decisions.

Dhalla stumbled into a career in medicine by accident. “I went to a suburban public high school, and it seemed that if you were good at math you were gently guided towards engineering,” says Dhalla, who grew up on the outskirts of Vancouver, moving there from England with his parents when he was 6.

“But I had no passion for it. It worked out okay, since I think the problem-solving skills I learned in engineering serve me well in medicine.”

It was while doing a co-op term for his engineering degree at a hospital that he started to feel the pull toward medicine.

“I like talking to people, and it didn’t seem like there was very much of that in engineering,” he recalls. “I also liked the idea of marrying the immediacy of helping individual patients with doing research that would help others in the future.”

He moved east to study at the University of Toronto medical school, where he now teaches. Along the way, he married a family physician, Dr. Tara Kirin, with whom he has a 4-year-old daughter, Anousha, and a 2-year-old son, Nikhil.

In the coming year, Dhalla plans to continue his research on behalf of the Keenan Research Centre of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Mike’s as well as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. He has an interest in the epidemiology of abuse of prescription painkillers and how to reduce the number of deaths they cause.

Research may be a little less gratifying on a day-to-day basis, he says, but it gives you “hope that one day your work will make life better for thousands or even millions of people.”

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