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Research adrenaline junkie: how clinical research energised my career

As part of our week-long series on the crucial role that clinical research plays in the NHS, Dr Matthew Brookes, consultant gastroenterologist at the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust talks about the transformational effect that clinical research has had on his career.

Research hasn’t always been an important aspect of my career. I enjoyed all of the aspects of my clinical training and thrived under the pressure of emergency medicine, but felt an academic career was out of reach. Throughout my House Officer and Senior House Officer posts, my main objective was to get onto a gastroenterology training programme, and I gave very little thought to clinical research or academic opportunities.

It wasn’t until the middle of my registrar rotation in the West Midlands that I even started to consider research and the opportunities it might bring to my career. By then I’d managed to write a couple of publications, mainly case reports, but never been involved with any patients in a clinical trial. At that stage I felt those developing a “late” interest in research had often missed their chance.

The difficulties that I encountered at this stage in my career led me to develop a national survey exploring other gastroenterology trainees’ experiences in research, and I went onto publish this work. Then I successfully applied for funding to complete a research fellowship, which was undertaken at Birmingham University and resulted in my PhD.

My PhD helped to re-energise my enthusiasm for medicine.

What really drove me was the excitement of an experiment yielding a new set of results, the buzz after a paper was accepted, the adrenaline rush (not felt since those early days on the acute medical take) of presenting your research work at an international conference and being able to defend the results to robust scientific challenge.

Since my PhD, I’ve managed to incorporate research into just about all aspects of my clinical work. I was fortunate enough to be appointed as a clinician in a trust that wanted to develop a gastroenterology programme of research. My job plan included two clinical programmed activities (equivalent of a day a week) to develop our research portfolio.

This led to the award of a series of successful grants, PhD supervision, development of our own research laboratory, appointment of further research active colleagues, collaborations with other researchers across the world, lots of travel and more recently a professorial appointment at our local university.

However, being research active has many benefits that are less “academic”.  For me they include (but are certainly not limited to):

  1. Providing new interventions and therapies to patients
  2. Offering access to research to people who would not traditionally have been able to access it
  3. Engaging with national groups to develop guidelines and pathways
  4. Developing a national strategy for research within my speciality
  5. Working with NIHR research networks to get more institutions research active
  6. Working with patients to promote access to research
  7. Collaborating with gastroenterology trainees to promote trainee-led research networks.

Being research active has fired my enthusiasm to always seek to improve the quality and standards of care we provide. I still get the adrenaline rush when I see a new set of data presented by our PhD students, discover a novel finding in a trial, when we present at a conference or when we hear that our grant application has been successful.

Although I always thought that, as a “late” developer, my opportunities had gone, this is certainly not the case now. What has dramatically changed over the last 10 years is that access to research is far more widespread.

I would encourage everyone to take the opportunity to get experience in research. It can be at any stage in your training, or even after your appointment as a consultant. With the support of specialist societies and royal colleges including RCP, the opportunities and access to research are wider and further than ever before.

On Thursday 28 November, the RCP will launch Benefiting from the research effect, outlining how NHS trusts can support clinicians to become more research active and the benefits this will realise.