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Case study: Spotlight on the unsung heroes of clinical research

Leigh Franks

Leigh Franks is a Clinical Research Practitioner and holds an important role supporting the delivery of high quality and ethically approved NIHR portfolio research to patients, staff and the general public. She ensures as many people as possible are made aware of the research opportunities that are available to them, by working closely with clinicians and stakeholders.

Leigh currently works as a Clinical Research Practitioner at Midlands Partnership Foundation Trust (MPFT) and shares her experiences of the job, what it’s been like during the last few months since the pandemic began and why she feels there’s a bright future ahead for healthcare professionals working in this field.

“So, what does a typical day look like for a Clinical Research Practitioner? I hear you cry!”

On the surface this sounds like an easy question, however when I have reflected on today’s Clinical Research Practitioner role it is fair to say it is very varied. When I first started as a Clinical Research Practitioner in the West Midlands, back in 2007, we worked on many NIHR portfolio studies in one specialty, however now the role requires us to lead and work on multiple NIHR portfolio studies across many specialties.

We are an agile and highly skilled research delivery workforce, who are well equipped to safely lead and deliver complex clinical NIHR Portfolio studies across a variety of specialities. For most of us, our backgrounds involve research training at a higher education level, which means our role brings diversity to research delivery teams.

In practice we usually work on a range of tasks across different specialties during a day. We may start our day by looking at feasibility for a catheter study, then linking in with a sexual health service about study recruitment numbers and their site file management. After lunch we might chair an internal team meeting for an osteoarthritis study to discuss amendments to the protocol and new recruitment strategies. We may then finish the day by conducting a mental health interview with a patient before obtaining a blood sample.  Therefore I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “typical day”, because no two days are the same in this role. Throw COVID-19 into the mix and the word “typical” seems to have gone out the window.

Since COVID-19 erupted, the NIHR has pivoted to meet the research needs of the pandemic and so for the next 18 months, or so, I am not sure what a “typical day” will look like as we continue on our COVID journey. Over the last few months, the days have been filled with suspending non-COVID-19 related portfolio studies, setting up and recruiting to NIHR portfolio COVID-19 urgent public health studies and then looking at restarting non-COVID-19 studies again. In amongst this, we are waiting to see what important roles Clinical Research Practitioners will be taking on once the COVID-19 vaccine studies start coming through.

One thing I am sure about is that the Clinical Research Practitioner workforce has the skills, knowledge and experience to rise to the challenges ahead. We will continue to work closely with our colleagues to help find effective treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, whilst also continuing to support other non-COVID-19 portfolio studies.

Why is 2020 an important year for Clinical Research Practitioners?

This year is officially the year of the nurse and midwife (what a year it has been for our friends and colleagues!). I also think 2020 is a significant year for raising the profile of  research and has emphasised our exceptionally skilled research workforce in the UK. Clinical Research Practitioners make up a notable part of the research workforce and 2020 sees us finally receiving professional recognition for our role. The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) has now approved registration for Clinical Research Practitioners as part of The Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS) accredited register. This is very exciting and I am looking forward to seeing the positive impact this will have going forward.    

Recent times have been difficult for many of us as we have all been adapting to new ways of working, an increased pace and trying to adapt to all the changes that continue to come our way both personally and professionally. Although these are indeed uncertain times, we can all be certain that it will be through research that we will find the answers to the important COVID-19 questions. I have seen great innovation and collaborations over the last few months and as we all start to reimagine the future and decide what practices we would like to keep and take forward, I firmly believe we are heading back to better.