Chris Maher: Leading a strong program of research around low back pain

Chris Maher  is the Director of the Musculoskeletal Division at The George Institute for Global Health, leading a program of research focusing on the management of musculoskeletal conditions in primary care and community settings. The Division has a strong program of research around low back pain; with studies such as PACE and TRIGGERS, receiving international media attention recently. 

Chris is also a Professor in the Sydney Medical School and holds a National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia Senior Research Fellowship. 

To explain to people what I do I say… I am a health researcher who is trying to improve the management of back pain. Another part of my job is leading a team of 40 people looking at related musculoskeletal conditions.

How long have you been working at The George Institute?
Six years.

What attracted you to working at The George Institute?
I had been working at the University of Sydney for quite some time and I was looking for a change. I got the change and much more, I have never looked back. What we do is important and we do get to make a difference. There are lots of jobs that pay far more money but at the end of the day what can you say have really achieved? 

What was your first job?
My first job was collecting trolleys at the local shopping centre during school holidays. It was all done by hand back then so it was hard work on a hot Sydney summer day. The uniform included a long shirt, tie and jacket so we developed a very efficient thermoregulation system. 

What are you currently working on? 
Mainly the National Health and Medical Research Council grant submissions, which sounds boring but it will hopefully secure funding for important work over the next 3-5 years. I think that is the one downside to my job: writing grant applications.

What is a recent highlight? 
The huge media interest in the PACE trial, which evaluated the effects of paracetamol on back pain. It is a little surreal to find out your trial has been featured on page 1 of the London Times. It really speaks to the importance of the work we do here at the George.

What difference will this make to healthcare and why? 
Paracetamol is universally endorsed as the first choice pain killer for back pain but until PACE no-one had done the trial to check that this presumption was true. PACE showed that paracetamol was no more effective than a placebo. In the post-PACE era we are going to approach management of back pain quite differently.

What is your professional background?
I have degrees in physiotherapy and exercise science which I find is a good background for the work we do at the George, given our focus on chronic disease and injury.

Why do you enjoy working at The George Institute? 
It is mainly the people you get to work with. At the George you get to work amongst the world’s leading researchers. Within each division there are stellar people: from the professors to the early career researchers to the PhD students. We are spoilt for quality. 

How do you like to unwind?
I do a few things. I enjoy running so there is usually either a 5 or 10k race one day of the weekend. I also like old cars; I have a 1953 and a 1967 Daimler, but today few recognise the name. Daimler were the first cars the UK royal family used, that relationship lasted for decades until one day the royal Daimler broke down and the royal family switched to Rolls Royce. And I do manage to spend some time with my wife, daughter and cat but as the only male in the house I am at the bottom of the pecking order. 

My biggest achievement so far... is raising a 16 year old daughter who is an absolute delight and still enjoys time with her mum and dad.