Celebrating the impact of nursing on research and innovation

April 29, 2021


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This year on 29 April the Royal College of Nursing mark their Inaugural Clinical Research Nursing Day with a theme titled  ‘Celebrating clinical research nursing and its vital role in health care’. We spoke to Linda McQuaid, a former Director of Nursing and current Clinical Director for our Patient Safety and Experience team and asked her about how the expertise of clinical research nurses – and nurses of other specialisms – can be applied to support the spread and adoption of innovation within the NHS.

To me, Clinical Research Nursing Day is a great opportunity to reflect on the impact nurses and midwives have across all of health and care. Nursing is one of the professions at the heart of the NHS, but there still remain misconceptions about the true breadth and depth of how nurses contribute to the system. I think organisations like the Health Innovation Network (HIN) are a great example of how the skills and expertise of nurses can be brought to bear in ways that the general public might not be aware of – including helping to drive world-class research, evaluation and transformation.

Understanding the parallels between clinical research and driving the spread and adoption of innovation

Research nurses use evidence to assess whether new approaches to care are needed and to ask whether the current treatment pathways could be made better. In this way, improvements can be made in prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. Clinical research ultimately is all about improving patient care and treatment pathways through the gathering and analysis of evidence about new drugs, treatments, care pathways or regimens – it is the absolute central pillar of clinical innovation.

The Royal College of Nursing suggests that a research nurse could be involved in some or all of the following activities:

  • supporting a patient through their treatment as part of a clinical trial;
  • preparing trial protocols and other trial-related documentation;
  • helping to develop new drugs, treatments, care pathways or regimens for patients;
  • dealing with data collection;
  • submitting study proposals for regulatory approval, and co-ordinating the initiation, management and completion of the research; and
  • managing a team.

Although many of these tasks might seem very different to the day-to-day life of a clinician at an Academic Health Science Network (AHSN), the underlying skills remain the same. A robust, academic approach to measurement and evaluation is of course key to both roles, as is the need to play a leading role within a diverse team.

Approaching evaluation with a clinical mindset

At organisations tasked with driving innovation, we often look to clinicians for expert guidance and leadership when it comes to measurement and evaluation. For the HIN – with staff from nursing backgrounds across many levels of the organisation – this is especially true.

Having introduced new services it is essential to measure the effectiveness of them by having appropriate methods of evaluation. There are many ways of doing this but the important point is that if the data suggests that things are not going as planned, or not giving the expected results then you must be prepared to change course.

The past year has brought about new ways of delivering services, some of which, such as virtual consultations might have been discussed and planned for some time but not quite have got to the implementation stage. Others will have been introduced out of necessity rather than as a result of planned research but we now have a wealth of learning. We must be sure to use that going forward so that some good can come from the awful events of the pandemic and we ensure that the HIN can follow its aim of spread and adoption.

Managing and building teams that are “more than the sum of their parts”

Whether I was in a Director of Nursing role or a senior operational role it was always important that the services we planned and delivered were proven best practice and constantly evaluated. Nurses are bound by a Code of Conduct which says that we should “practise in line with the best available evidence”. It goes on to say that “any information given is evidence-based” and that we should “maintain the knowledge and skills you need for safe and effective practice”.

To do this, it was important that the team that I developed included those with research skills, and that I as the leader of the team ensured that they had the support they needed to carry out that research. This was especially true at the very senior levels such as Nurse Consultants who have an expectation of research in their roles and should have job plans that give them the time and space to do that. This is not exclusive to senior staff however and I am convinced that nurses should be encouraged from the day they join the profession to question constantly and always seek to improve patient outcomes.

As well as teams within my operational or professional sphere, it was important to work alongside colleagues whose roles were specifically about practice development, quality improvement and innovation. I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with inspirational people who had skills that I did not. I believe that it is essential that we all recognise our gaps and are prepared to acknowledge them and seek help and support from others.

This is certainly a central tenet for the HIN – one of our real strengths is the diversity of talented and brilliant people we have involved in making innovation happen faster in south London.

Further information

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