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Prof Lucy Chappell: insights from India

Prof Lucy Chappell visits an urban primary health care centre in Delhi, India

Published: 17 January 2024

NIHR CEO Professor Lucy Chappell reflects on her visit to India in September 2023, where she met research teams working on NIHR’s PREVENT study and its Global Health Research Unit focused on preventing stillbirths and deaths in newborn babies.

During my trip to India in September 2023, I had the pleasure of gaining a better insight into the Indian health system and medical research landscape, as well as learning about the exciting work the NIHR is funding through the Global Health Research portfolio.

My trip took me to two vibrant cities, Bengaluru and Delhi, where I visited NIHR-funded Global Health Research projects. We also hosted an event for early career researchers, and finally met with Indian medical research funders, a public policy think tank, the World Bank and the WHO.

For me, this visit reinforced the importance of international research collaboration to tackle global health challenges. These include preparing for the next pandemic, antimicrobial resistance, and addressing the adverse impacts of climate change on health.

Bidirectional learning

I learned more about the Indian healthcare system - and although the UK and India have different health needs, I was struck by how much we have in common. Learning how other countries deal with their challenges can act as a springboard for innovation and international collaboration.

My visit to an Urban Primary Health Care Centre in Delhi brought to the fore India’s approaches to using its health workforce wisely, an issue that is familiar to us in the UK. It was inspiring to see how the centre’s staff embraced innovation, through approaches such as task shifting, m-health and telemedicine.

This was further showcased through their utilisation of digital health in improving immunisation coverage, particularly in areas with large migrant populations. This digitisation has also supported the work of the Ashas (female community health workers), who form the bedrock of the Indian healthcare system, and play a crucial role in embedding primary health care within the community.

The trust they inspire in the community is striking, and was well illustrated by the clear acceptability of men attending the centre, as well as women with reproductive and maternity healthcare needs.

I was inspired by the adaptability and dynamism of the staff at the centre, as they rapidly adopt innovative healthcare models. Such an approach will be crucial for both our health systems, as they become increasingly faced with overlapping demands. India’s experience in this field offers valuable lessons for the rest of the world.

Multi-country collaborations

It was a true privilege to host early career researchers working on NIHR projects at the Residence of the British High Commission in Delhi. I was impressed by the excellent presentations, which highlighted the striking geographical breadth of NIHR Global Health Research projects and the emergence of multi-country consortia in South and Southeast Asia. These collaborations have the potential to make a profound impact on health globally.

Researchers from different countries bring diverse perspectives, experiences, and resources to the table, providing rich learning opportunities. Nevertheless, such collaborations come with operational challenges, for example in considering equitable sharing of data and samples across borders. Overcoming such challenges is essential to harnessing the full potential of multi-country collaborations.

Research Impact

I am very thankful to colleagues at Bangalore Medical College for organising an excellent visit. We enjoyed a lively roundtable discussion with researchers working on two NIHR projects, and a tour of the neonatal unit and labour ward. This really showed how embedding research into the clinical setting is vital to ensuring impact, brought home by seeing a baby participating in one of the active neonatal research studies.

I was also delighted to have the chance to speak to researchers with a rich variety of backgrounds and skills, including research nurses, trial managers and social scientists. I am a true supporter of diverse research teams, and see great value in building the research capacity of all health professionals. Such an approach is not only empowering for health professionals, but also leads to better quality research which is more likely to impact policy and practice.

Another vital aspect of ensuring research impact, and one that NIHR regularly champions, is to engage early with policymakers and include communities in research. It was clear that this approach was well reflected in these NIHR Global Health Research projects.

For example, one project working on neurodevelopment and autism in South Asia included parents of children with autism as co-investigators, and another, working on stillbirth management, actively involves and consults with parents having experienced child loss. I am always impressed by the positive impacts such inclusive approaches generate.

My visit left me feeling inspired by the role of innovation and international health research collaboration for solving global health challenges. I hope to continue working with colleagues in India to improve the health and prosperity of both our nations and beyond.

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