The future of R&D in the NHS

The NHS R&D Forum Annual Conference is the largest gathering of R&D professionals from across the UK, with over 400 delegates in attendance each year.

Idox joined the 2015 event, held in Manchester, to explore the latest developments and trends affecting the sector, feeding into the support offered to UK healthcare organisations via its dedicated funding and policy solutions.

Conference speeches: key themes and discussions

The conference kicked off with an opening speech from Dr Kevin Fong, founder and associate director of the Centre for Altitude, Space & Extreme Environment Medicine, who underlined the importance of team work in the difficult situations that clinicians may face.

Two further keynote speeches covered the challenges facing researchers dealing with the Ebola outbreak and how medical research charities and the NHS can provide a supportive UK research environment in order to ensure the best results for patients.

Chair of the Health Research Authority (HRA), Jonathan Montgomery opened Day Two of the event with an address focusing on encouraging safe and ethical research, including a heavy emphasis on public engagement and involvement. He acknowledged public concerns and general mistrust of clinical trials and noted that transparency is a key priority for the HRA to help gain and maintain public confidence.

Increasing public involvement in research was a prevalent theme in a keynote speech from Derek C. Stewart OBE, Associate Director for Patient & Public Involvement at the NIHR Clinical Research Network. Stewart noted that research efforts for the most part are ‘hidden’ and research is seen as ‘not for us’, concluding that more work needs to be done to increase the visibility of research activity to the general public. He stressed the need for clear information and transparency, making it easier for patients to take part in studies, and said that researchers aren’t ‘knocking a closed door’, implying that the public are interested in research. All delegates were urged to review their own websites and ensure there is a clear section for research. Interestingly, in an exercise to see which organisations already had a dedicated research page, only a few delegates raised their hands.

Following on from Stewart, Professor Alistair Burns, the National Clinical Director for Dementia in England outlined how research is helping to combat the disease. He highlighted the significant disparity in the expenditure on dementia care compared with that spent on dementia research. Despite this, funding for dementia research has steadily increased every year since 2009/10 from £26.6 million to £66.3 million in 2014/15. Research efforts are also being aided by Alzheimer’s Research UK’s £100 million pledge of support and the Alzheimer’s Society’s commitment to spend £100 million on research over a 10-year period.

Conference workshops: real-life implementation and impact

A full programme of workshops was open to delegates across the two days. One of the most popular was ‘The Future of NHS R&D’ run by Phil Glanfield, and Janet Smallwood from Ashridge Business School. For the past three years, Ashridge has been working with NHS Trusts and Primary Care organisations to help create faster and easier research. The session looked at four types of R&D leaders: quality expert, individual champion, strategic partner, and change agent and discussed with researchers how these roles are changing.

A workshop run by Danetree Medical Practice (runners-up in the 2014 HSJ Award for clinical research impact) demonstrated how primary care can get involved with research. The Practice participated in research five to six years ago where it was perceived as an add-on to daily activity. In the last two years, it has grown to become the core of what they do (increasing research activity by 500%), enabling the Practice to engage in more academic and commercial studies.

The Practice operates an open approach to research, constantly disseminating information to patients about their research. This transparent approach has helped improve the recruitment and retention of patients; the team believed that their patients felt valued when being asked to take an active part in their own healthcare plan – effectively becoming partners in their own care. Patients also benefit from gaining access to current methodologies and treatment/therapies that may not be available via the NHS. The team additionally explained their view of how engaging in research has benefitted their staff by enabling them to work together as a team, be more innovative and creating more training/CPD opportunities.

Primary Care units are often seen as the ‘David amongst the Goliaths’ in the research field but the Practice team believed that primary care research can be just as valuable as secondary care research. Using itself as an example, the Practice is trying to engage other practices by offering mentorship and visits to their premises. Since the abolishment of Primary Care Trusts, and with little funding available for primary care units, this relationship with neighbouring practices was acknowledged as essential to help unite and strengthen what many delegates felt is a fragmented sector.

Maria Thornton, Lead for Research, Development and Innovation at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust, shared her top tips of how to integrate innovative thinking into NHS foundations and highlighted the importance of research to help safeguard the future. The Walton Centre – the only specialist neuroscience NHS Trust in the UK – has over 1,000 staff with a large number of them engaged in research; essential to meet their monthly target of recruiting the 100 patients per month. Failure to meet this target would result in a loss of £76,000.

One of the ways in which the Centre encourages innovation is through an annual Bright Ideas competition, encouraging staff from all sectors to submit their ideas for how to improve the service. Of the 20 ideas received so far, they had implemented nearly half of them. The premise of the competition was to get across the premise that everyday ideas and ‘frugal innovation’ is as important as the big, technical ideas, and anyone can be involved in generating these.

In trying to increase the visibility of their research to the public, coinciding with International Clinical Trials Day, the Trust produced eight short films communicating patient stories of how research changed their lives. They collaborated with other trusts and the community by using a local cinema that was going to be closed down to screen the films.

In March 2014, The Centre received funding from the Regional Innovation Fund and worked with the North West Coast Academic Health Science Network, Bio Ltd and Our Life to develop an innovation toolkit which provides resources to help Trusts be more innovative. The toolkit is free to use and has proved to be a valuable and time-saving tool for many NHS Trusts.

Conclusion

What emerged from the two-day Conference was a notion that despite the challenges researchers face, whether in terms of changes in the governance framework, gaining public confidence, lack of funding or remaining sustainable through ethical and patient-centred research, their work is vital and can be life-changing.

As Jonathan Montgomery noted: ‘together we can improve a nation’s health.’

Idox’s GRANTfinder 4 Health and RESEARCHconnect services aim to provide the latest funding information to the UK research and health communities. For more information on how you can obtain support from the suite of professional funding solutions, contact grants.marketing@idoxgroup.com.
By Sarah Perry, Idox

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