Combining research with clinical commitments, Dr Justyna Witczak took up a new consultant post at Cardiff’s University Hospital of Wales in 2019. Within a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic had put much of her research work on hold.
Here she discusses her career so far, the barriers to research in smaller hospitals, and the importance of protected time for clinical research.
I always wanted to combine research with clinical work.
During my specialty training, I took time out-of-programme for research (OOPR), which was supported by the RCP Lewis Thomas Gibbon Jenkins of Briton Ferry Fellowship. The fellowship’s aim is to promote medical research in Wales, and it enabled me to undertake a fully funded research project at Cardiff University, which led to a higher degree. I was able to focus fully on my research for 2 years, without the distractions and pressures of life as a specialty registrar in general internal medicine.
I first became involved with research as a core medical trainee. I carried out a retrospective study involving data review and analysis. I worked on it after hours, in my ‘spare’ time, because I knew it would enhance my CV when applying for jobs with a research component.
When I became a consultant, I was lucky enough to be offered a post with two research sessions in the job plan. This research element makes my job more interesting and varied; the day I spend on research is one of my favourite parts of the week. Research allows me to take a break from the hectic clinical side of my job and focus on other projects; it also helps me to stay up to date with new developments. I can offer my patients new therapies and access to research programmes. I love collaborating with other scientists and postgraduate students; this part of the job is both rewarding and stimulating.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though! As with any job, there are frustrations. Patient recruitment can sometimes be difficult as there are strict exclusion and inclusion criteria for some studies. If I could go back in time to the beginning of my career, I would try to be less stressed about the things that were out of my control. Establishing new collaborations, obtaining approvals, and even getting a project off the ground takes time. Although having 2 or 3 years to complete a project and write it up appears to be sufficient, time in research really does fly very quickly and is very precious.
Over the years I have learnt that it is important not to be discouraged by initial obstacles.
I have developed huge reserves of patience and perseverance! It can be challenging at times to combine clinical and research work. Despite the division in my job plan, the different areas of my work can overlap and good time management is key! It is important to be realistic, however enthusiastic you are about a new project, you must plan it carefully and aim to set achievable goals.
If you want to carry out research, it is vital to have dedicated time in your job plan. Otherwise it can be very difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Other essentials? Good support from your local research and development team, especially when it comes to paperwork. In an ideal world, you would be supported by dedicated research officers and nurses, but this is not always possible in a smaller district general hospital because of other funding priorities.
Another barrier to research activity in smaller hospitals is the lack of dedicated facilities. Quite often, apart from clinical space for seeing patients, specialist equipment for samples storage and processing is required (-80°C freezer, centrifuges etc) and these items may not be on the priority list at smaller hospitals.
The key thing, and I cannot stress this enough, is to ensure that doctors who want to carry out research have protected time for this in their job plan. It is the single biggest thing that we can do to encourage more clinicians to become involved in research.
To find out more about the RCP's work to support clinicians who want to become more involved in research, visit our Research Hub.