Pioneer in antimicrobial resistance, infection prevention and health-care innovation receives honour
By Julia MacGregor, Cumming School of Medicine
This story appeared in UToday on May 14, 2019.
Looking out the window at Cascade Mountain while attending an infectious disease conference in Banff, John Conly listened to a garbled voicemail message from an unrecognized Ottawa number. “I was worried it was Revenue Canada,” jokes Dr. Conly, MD. “I thought, what have I done wrong with my income tax return, I had better call them back just in case.” Instead, he spoke to Rideau Hall, where he learned that he was to be awarded the Order of Canada.
Throughout his career, which started in 1985 focused on infectious disease, Conly, professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, has had and still wears many hats: physician, academic, president, chairman, committee member, department head, expert witness, methodologist, executive and medical director, and cowboy (during and sometimes outside of the Stampede). When speaking with Conly about his work, he states often that his contributions reflect that of a larger team. “Through teamwork you achieve great things, it is very difficult for one person to conduct science in the modern era,” says Conly. “Having highly integrated and dedicated teams working toward a common goal, brings a greater level of successes than one might alone.”
The Order of Canada’s motto is “They Desire a Better Country,” which resonates with him. “As a physician, this is something we are continually trying to do — looking at the patient, making an accurate diagnosis, providing better therapies, and always working to provide the best care possible,” says Conly. “Doing this work collaboratively is what moves the yardsticks forward, to make a difference collectively for our communities.”
Antimicrobial resistance or AMR occurs when a bacteria or virus stops reacting to an antibiotic or antiviral, making treatments ineffective, and allowing for the possible spread of the resistant bacteria and viruses to others. AMR affects both human and animal health.
In the mid-1990s, AMR was being recognized as an increasingly pressing health issue. At the time, Conly was president of the Canadian Infectious Disease Society and he began working with the Public Health Agency of Canada (then the Laboratory Centre for Disease Control) on a major meeting to lay out a national approach for addressing AMR in Canada. “We brought in over 200 national stakeholders to Montreal in 1997 for the Canadian Consensus Conference on Antimicrobial Resistance,” says Conly. “This was the first conference to look at the broad societal impact of AMR in Canada, and provided a series of recommendations for a national initiative to address the AMR threat, ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom.”
Conly was also involved in the formation of the Canadian Committee for Antibiotic Resistance in 1998. In his role as a committee member and later as chairman, he worked with other members of the committee, on a broad consultation process to produce the first Canadian National Action Plan to Address Antibiotic Resistance in 2004.
Over the years, Conly has continued to bring awareness to the impacts of AMR on the health of Canadians, through expert witness testimony, consultancy, and reports to a Canadian Senate committee, the Auditor General’s Office and the Council of Canadian Academies.
More recently, Conly’s work in AMR has extended across the borders of Canada with international reach, working as a member of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Advisory Group on Integrated Surveillance of Antimicrobial Resistance (AGISAR), and as the senior methodologist for the WHO Guideline Development Group (GDG). Collaborating with experts and veterinarians from around the world, including South Korea, Colombia, France, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, and the United States, the WHO published the GDG’s Guidelines on Use of Medically Important Antimicrobials in Food-Producing Animals in November 2017. Underpinning this guideline was a major paper from researchers at the Cumming School of Medicine and Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “Appropriate use of antibiotics is a big part of the work I have done,” says Conly. “Hopefully it will make a difference to stem the tide of antibiotic resistance around the world.”
Infection prevention and control
Conly has dedicated a lifetime preventing infections acquired within health-care facilities through his work in infection prevention and control (IP&C). IP&C plays an important role in clinical practice by protecting patients, clinicians, and hospital staff with measures such as hand hygiene compliance, best practice guidelines, and the collection of hospital surveillance data to monitor reductions and outbreaks of infections. The practice of IP&C is also intrinsically linked to reducing the impacts of AMR through the stewardship of antibiotics. Conly currently serves as the medical director for infection prevention and control for the Calgary zone of Alberta Health Services, and co-director of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, focused on integrating basic science with clinical care.
“I have been so fortunate to work hand-in-hand with experts in clinical and basic science to take observations from the patient’s bedside, back to the bench,” says Conly. “These basic science investigators find new immunizations, advances in antibiotics, and methods to enhance immune responses and reduce inflammatory conditions, and those discoveries go back to help the patient.”
Rapid advances in technology and systems change have the potential to revitalize and transform our health systems. However, in order for meaningful transformations to occur, major innovation shifts need to take place — ones that could ultimately raise the quality, efficiency, and safety of care for everyone.
Back in 2002, in his role as department head, Conly conceptualized the idea of a new hospital ward, called W21C (or Ward of the 21st Century) focused on identifying challenges in the health system, and solving problems right at the front lines of patient care. He helped secure funding to create this living laboratory, the only one of its kind in Canada, to do just that. An internal medicine unit at the Foothills Medical Centre was redesigned utilizing best practices in hospital design, creating a patient care unit with an embedded culture of multidisciplinary research and innovation.
“We needed to find new ways to improve the quality and delivery of care for our communities,” says Conly.
From this initial concept, the vision has expanded to innovate care delivery using new systems, processes, policies and technologies not only within the hospital, but in other health-care settings and in the community. Now, within the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, the W21C Research and Innovation Centre continues to evaluate these aspects of our health system to make care better, and to support the growth of a health innovation ecosystem within the province. Conly currently oversees the work as medical director of W21C.
“I have been blessed to work with so many incredible people. I look at them and think, if they can work that hard and be so dedicated, I can too.”
John Conly is a professor in the departments of medicine, pathology and laboratory medicine, and microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases and a member of the Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a physician with Alberta Health Services in Infectious Diseases and Internal Medicine.