Here, Professor Sue Carr, the GMC’s Deputy Medical Director and Consultant Nephrologist, discusses how involvement in medical research can equip doctors with skills and experiences that can improve patient care. And why the GMC will be working with partners across healthcare in 2021, so that more doctors have the chance to take part in research programmes.

Never before has the world’s gaze been as firmly fixed on medical research as it is now. New developments in how we treat or combat coronavirus (COVID-19) are no longer just of interest to scientific and medical communities, but they’re being scrutinised by the world.

At the beginning of last year, little was known about how we should treat coronavirus. But thanks to healthcare staff sharing information and findings quickly, we know how to handle the virus more effectively. In early spring a vaccine also felt like a distant dream, but now a vaccination programme has begun.

The way that researchers, doctors and patients have worked together during the pandemic has been phenomenal. It’s an example of how actively involving both doctors and patients in research can have a positive impact on care.

I’ve been lucky enough to see these benefits throughout my career and believe that all doctors should have the chance to be involved in medical research, regardless of their role, specialty or location.

There’s also nothing like the personal satisfaction that being involved in a project brings. I now prescribe drugs where I helped to recruit patients to the trials to more than 20 years ago, and it feels like I played a small part in helping my patients to access better treatments.

The benefits of involving doctors in research

Across the UK there are excellent hospitals, practices and research centres that actively involve doctors in a wide range of medical research. From having ideas for research projects and leading trials themselves, to recruiting patients for studies and supporting colleagues, there are many ways doctors can take part.

But research-active hospitals and practices are usually in cities or close to major teaching centres, leaving both patients and doctors in more rural areas unable to access the benefits that medical research can bring. This can have an impact on patient care.

The Keogh report highlighted that doctors who have been involved in research tend to deliver the best treatment for patients. The same research also highlighted that doctors working in research-orientated hospitals were less likely to contribute to avoidable patient deaths.

Being more involved in research projects can help doctors to develop and maintain core skills, such as analysing risk, working in multi-disciplinary teams, leadership and communication. These are all skills that can contribute towards creating more effective and inclusive working environments.

Creating opportunities in a system under pressure

I know the realities of working in some hospitals means there are challenges in being involved in research activity. In recent years doctors’ time for development and training has been squeezed because of the ever-increasing demands of clinical service.

The pandemic is also putting huge pressure on the health services at the moment, and it’s thought it will continue to impact workloads for the foreseeable future. But with participation in research bringing huge benefits to patients and doctors, it’s vital that we don’t allow chances for doctors to take part to become even rarer.

That’s why we’ll be speaking to our partners across healthcare this year about how we can make sure more doctors can get involved in research projects. We’ll discuss how we can better promote the benefits of taking part in medical research and ways to eradicate the inequalities so that opportunities are available for a wider range of doctors.

Our healthcare workers and scientists have been the people the world has turned to during this crisis, and the skills they’ve demonstrated, and continued to demonstrate, have been incredible. It’s important that we learn from the pandemic and widen participation in research projects. The results may not change the world every time, but it will help all patients to access a better standard of care.

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