Prof Veronica Wilkie (left) and Dr Carl Ellson explain how a collaboration between the University of Worcester and the local NHS will help to address local healthcare needs

The University of Worcester and the NHS in Worcestershire have been working together for a number of years in the training of nurses and allied healthcare professionals. The university had grown and become better established and was looking to see if it could do more in relation to healthcare research. In 2013, a number of individuals from across Worcestershire NHS primary, secondary, and community healthcare met with the Institute of Health and Society at Worcester University, and the Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration (WHRC) was born (see www.worcester.ac.uk/discover/whrc.html).

Background

In October 2011, the Department of Health published Innovation health and wealth, accelerating adoption and diffusion in the NHS.1 In his letter of 2011, which launched the document, Sir David Nicholson (as Chief Executive of the NHS) wrote:2

'Now more than ever before, innovation has a vital role to play if we are to continue to improve outcomes for patients and deliver value for money. ...This requires a fundamental change to the way in which people currently work. At the heart of this is strong leadership—both clinical and managerial—at all levels in the system. It will require all leaders to identify and tackle the behaviours and cultures that can stand in the way of innovation. We will need to align system incentives to support and encourage innovation. We will need to create "pull" for new ideas from patients and the NHS, rather than relying on the traditional top down "push".'

One of the outcomes of this document was the Academic Health Science Networks, which exist to ‘create an environment in which the health and wealth of the population … can improve and prosper3 through targeted commissioning of research, based on the needs of the population local to academic and healthcare services.

NHS bodies are also encouraged to take part actively in research in order to deliver the best outcomes for the populations they serve,1,4 but they do not always have the staff or networks to enable them to deliver high-quality healthcare research.

Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration

The aims of WHRC were developed in the course of the first two meetings and are shown in Box 1 (see below).3

Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration includes in its membership colleagues from the West Midlands South Primary Care Research Network (PCRN) and Comprehensive Local Research Network (CLRN) (soon to be Local Clinical Research Network [LCRN]). These networks provide expert help to NHS clinicians regarding grants and research design. Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration now has a research fellow, who networks with NHS colleagues to help them apply for grants to support future studies.

Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration works with clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) to choose research areas that align the aims and objectives of grant-awarding bodies with specific questions asked by NHS bodies. Research projects currently underway include:

  • support for people surviving breast cancer
  • outcomes of schemes where GPs visit patients in ambulances, and why people call 999 with non-urgent problems
  • a project scoping cardiac telemetry using smartphone technology
  • evaluation of an integrated community support service for dementia.

The University of Worcester Institute of Health and Society plans to support its Masters students to undertake smaller evaluation studies based on NHS need; this will serve the dual purpose of making projects relevant to students, and helping service providers deliver safer clinical care in the future through the outcomes of research questions. These smaller studies include:

  • an evaluation of a palliative care respiratory clinic
  • investigating how carers view the services of a renal clinic.

Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration is local and so closer to the population, clinicians, and managers in the local area than the wider Area Health Service Research Network or CLRN; it is starting to make a difference because of local networking and knowledge. The needs of the NHS can feel quite alien to many academics and the level of detail required for research can put many NHS staff off academic research. Meeting together three or four times a year, then working though small projects, enables the two sectors to become more engaged and aligned with one another. Many of the members of WHRC are also members of the wider regional clinical research networks, and this enables a two-way sharing of intelligence.

Regional priorities can be worked through locally, for instance the PCRN Midlands South is supporting three research GP fellows; WHRC will bring them together with academics and NHS leaders, so that projects are properly integrated and new researchers feel supported.

Clinicians feel increasingly under pressure from the requirements of their clinical jobs and so cannot look at some of the smaller research questions that arise from their day-to-day practice. Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration hopes to be able to obtain smaller grants to enable time off to be bought from clinical practice, without impacting on patients, for research that will ultimately improve patient care.

The Collaboration is addressing several issues:

  • there is much enthusiasm, but individuals underestimate the amount of preparation needed for grant applications:
    • individuals or clinical departments need to sustain their enthusiasm for obtaining a grant, so that they continue to provide input as the grant proposal is worked up, and help develop the business case for the workplace changes needed to deliver the research
  • the challenge will be for a group of enthusiastic clinicians and academics to move to actually undertaking the research, which needs to be supported with structural changes.

Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration would not have existed without the strategic view and support of the University Worcester and of local NHS providers (South Worcestershire CCG in particular), who have supported academic leads to act as an interface between the university and the commissioners.

Box 1

  • Publicise and celebrate the research that already takes place
  • Promote a culture of research within constituent organisations
  • Facilitate close cooperation and joint working between constituent organisations and others engaged in research
  • Promote the local uptake and delivery of existing UK NIHR portfolio research studies
  • Support the generation of new research studies that address local health needs
  • Identify and realise opportunities for increasing external research grant income
  • Link with the AHSN, the wider NHS, and life science industry research networks and partners
  • Facilitate and encourage teaching and research between collaborating organisations.
  • NIHR=National Institute for Health Research; AHSN=Academic Health Science Network

Conclusion

Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration provides a forum for local researchers to meet with clinical and managerial colleagues in the local healthcare community, to share ideas and expertise, and to network. It is still early days, but already Masters students at the university are able to look at NHS-driven priorities in their studies, and WHRC provides help to NHS staff with grant applications.

  1. Department of Health. Innovation health and wealth, accelerating adoption and diffusion in the NHS. DH, 2011. www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/adopt-diff.pdf
  2. Innovation health and wealth. Letter from Sir David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS in England. 2011. Available at: webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130107105354/www.dh.gov.uk/
    prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/documents/digitalasset/dh_131785.pdf
  3. West Midlands Academic Health Science Network website. About us. wmahsn.org/about-us (accessed 31 March 2014).
  4. University of Worcester website. Worcestershire Health Research Collaboration. Aims of WHRC. www.worcester.ac.uk/discover/aims-of-whrc.html (accessed 31 March 2014). G