NHS pressures are threatening vital research, says report

Medical research that could have a direct impact on patient care is being blocked by the workload piled on NHS clinicians, preventing them from running or taking part in studies.

That’s the claim made in a new report by the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS), which says the number of doctors taking part in research is falling, and this is being exacerbated by a widening divide between universities and the NHS.

Consultants should be able to spend a day a week on research, and funding should be made available to allow them to do so, says the AMS, although that raises immediate questions about how this can be achieved given the chronic staffing shortages afflicting the NHS at the moment.

The AMS wants the government to commit £25 million a year over three years to allowing clinicians – particularly medical consultants with research training – to step back from clinical demands a little and contribute to new discoveries that might free up NHS money and resources in future.

That would also help prevent burnout – recognised as a major problem for the NHS in the current high-pressure working environment – reducing stress and improving job satisfaction.

In turn, that could end up saving money “by improving recruitment and retention of NHS staff, reducing spending on agency staff, and increasing research funding from life sciences companies,” says the AMS.

The Academy’s president Professor Sir Robert Lechler told the BBC’s Today programme this morning that there is “a great risk of wasting an opportunity to turn important discoveries in medical research into patient benefit unless we can better integrate the NHS and university-based research.”

The proposed £75 million pilot scheme would see one in five consultants at 10 hospitals in the UK given time to step back into research, but if run properly would not transfer pressure to other NHS staff, said Prof Lechler.

“Evidence…suggests that including research in medical roles makes it easier to attract and keep the best doctors,” he noted. “Research can also provide a coping mechanism to avoid burnout in NHS staff, so could make a dent in the £480 million yearly NHS spend on agency staff.”

Prof Lechler also welcomed the increase in funding for the NHS in what seems to be an aspiration in government to leverage the power of the NHS for medical research, but said this could be a wasted effort without addressing the challenges detailed in the report.

Research-active clinicians are a “vital link” for translating lab-based discovery at universities into measures that can bring a benefit to patients.

“If you don’t have that bridge, then the discoveries sit in the lab and they get reported and published…but they don’t ultimately realise the dividend for patients.”

He added: “It is important to note that every pound spent on biomedical research returns about 25p every year, forever. So we can’t afford not to do this both financially and more importantly for the health of us all.”

The report says hospitals and doctors’ surgeries should actively promote research, by valuing and measuring the health research they carry out, and training should be given to all healthcare staff in research practices.

Universities should also encourage NHS staff into their research teams by increasing the number of honorary positions on offer, it adds.

The number of NHS consultants employed by universities to lead research has decreased from 7.5% to 4.2% of NHS medical consultants from 2004 to 2017, according to the AMS.

In parallel, R&D investment in the UK by pharmaceutical companies has declined from 10.4% of global pharmaceutical R&D spend in 2011 – equivalent to around $14 billion – to 7% or around $11 billion in 2016, says the report.

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