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Research: Ability to change practice, improve care and learn more

Published: 02 October 2020

Dr Polly Duncan, is a General Practitioner (GP) and Senior Research Fellow, and her interest in research was sparked by an undergraduate research project in Ethiopia.  She writes about her NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship and how she now spends her time supporting research and encouraging others to get involved in research. Her blog has been published as part of NIHR's Your Path in Research campaign.

My life is a juggling act, working one day a week as a GP, three days doing research, being a mum with three young kids and getting my exercise and outdoor fix when I can. For the moment it seems to be working and I like the variety.

My GP day is long but passes in the blink of an eye. I enjoy immersing myself in the mental challenge of making best guess decisions and not knowing who will step through my door next or what their opening gambit will be. I’m always looking things up - part and parcel of being a very part time GP. The best bit by far for me is the human-to-human connection with patients. Moments where the conversation steers slightly away from the reason they’ve come in.

I love all the learning that goes on in general practice – looking up what to do, teaching and learning from students and trainees, sharing near misses with GP colleagues. Everyone else is making their best guess too.

The pace of my research job is slower than that of a GP but certainly no less taxing. The work is varied with time split between team and one-on-one meetings, working up ideas for projects, getting them off the ground, analysing data and writing, lots of writing.

Skills development

A short research project was compulsory at my University and I wonder whether I would have chosen the academic route had it not been. Would I have intercalated? I’m not sure I would. By a stroke of luck, I arranged a three-month project in rural Ethiopia. The week I enquired about going overseas, a very WISE academic, Gail Davey (at the time working in Ethiopia, now Professor of Global Health in Brighton) happened to be in Nottingham for a work trip.

I applied for an academic foundation job but didn’t get it. This was a setback. I parked the idea of a research career for now and headed to Devon for my foundation jobs (not a bad plan B). An Academic Clinical Fellowship post (combining GP and research training) was advertised in Bristol and I applied. I got it through by the skin of my teeth and, as part of it, completed a Masters in Public Health. I am now teeing myself up for a PhD fellowship.

One thing I love about my research job is the apprenticeship feel to it. I will make a best stab at writing a paper and my experienced academic colleagues will skilfully critique it, removing details that don’t need to be there and adding details which do. With every project, I make mistakes and learn from them, building my skillset for the next project.

Why does being a research active GP matter to you?

The whole point of research for me is to find something that is not being done well and to try to change it. My PhD (if I get it) will focus on the characteristics and unmet care needs of housebound patients - an under-researched group.  The current system of squeezing home visits into the middle of an already over-packed GP day is flawed. There is just about time to sort out the urgent problem (e.g. prescribe antibiotics for a urine infection) but no time to think about the bigger picture (e.g. discussions about the future or whether they want to keep taking all their medicines). Could research help change this? I hope so.

I’m in the early stages of a research career as a GP, but it’s important for me to be a good role model for those behind me, especially women. It is possible to be a mum, a GP and an aspiring academic. I have set up a new initiative called PACT (the Primary care Academic CollaboraTive). The idea is to give trainees and clinicians more opportunities to get involved in research. Data for grassroots projects will be collected by clinicians from the PACT network and combined to answer important research questions.

Learn more about PACT in this short animation:

If you are interested in getting involved visit the PACT website.
Follow PACT on Twitter: @PACTGP

*This blog was written by Dr Duncan for WISE GP and has been adapted for the NIHR.
WISE GP was established to help tell a story of building a career in General Practice underpinned by clinical scholarship.


You can read about the experiences of researchers and how you can get involved in research as part of the Your Path in Research campaign. You can also find out more information about developing a clinical academic career with NIHR Academy, including the NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship, a post which combines clinical specialty training with academic training.

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