GP and patient

Modern medicine is built on the foundations of decades of medical research. And today’s patients get to reap its benefits.

Whether understanding how to prevent cancer, discovering new drug treatments, or new ways of delivering radiotherapy and new surgical techniques – medical research has driven substantial improvements in cancer services over recent decades.

So it’s really important that research continues to be a part of routine care for cancer patients. Every patient should have the opportunity to take part in research, so that their experience can contribute to the collective understanding of the disease.

But how much is this aspiration translating into a reality for patients today? To find out, we commissioned a new report from academics at the University of Birmingham.

No time for research

Our new report, Every Patient a Research Patient?, looks at how well NHS is promoting research, and highlights ‘best practice’ from across the system, which could improve research activity for those not performing so well.

By examining case studies of hospitals that are good at research, the report found that leadership from senior managers in hospitals, as well as clinical research nurses, are important to achieving more clinical research. Allowing more departments and individuals within hospitals time to think about research will naturally bring about a more supportive culture.

Yet the report’s authors raise concern about how much time clinicians are able to commit to research.

Last year, we found that NHS cancer services were stretched to breaking point, and that it was still struggling to find its feet following the recent reforms.

Commenting at the time, our chief clinician, Professor Peter Johnson, said:

“We’re seeing ever-increasing patient numbers and more complex treatment pathways… but the other resources we have remain static and in, real terms, have even declined slightly. We’re having to do more with less.”

It turns out that this pressure has had a knock on effect: mounting pressures, coupled with the lack of available, skilled and experienced workforce are taking its toll.

In order to continue to improve cancer patient survival, the system not only needs to be able to meet the needs of research today, but also be able to carry out new forms of research in the future.

So, what needs to be done?

To address the immediate resource issues, the report recommends several things:

Firstly, that investment in National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) and other infrastructure should be maintained by Government in upcoming spending decisions.

Second, the various bodies responsible for paying for NHS services should work together to produce a research strategy. This would help ensure that all parts of the NHS are working together to give patients the opportunity to take part in research.

The report also calls for a more sophisticated way to measure ‘success’ in research activity: at the moment, the NHS just measures a hospital’s success at research by the number of trials or patients it recruits. But this is outdated: clinical research will continue to become more specialised as it focuses on targeted treatments for smaller groups of patients.

Instead the report suggests we should be rewarding doctors and hospitals that take on complex trials, something which the UK excels at, and that will pave the way for future medicine.

Finally, it calls for discussions about research to be part of routine care in the NHS. This means that both staff and patients will need to be able to find information about the importance of research (something we’re hoping to make easier with our recent clinical trials awareness campaign

To date, research has delivered great progress in cancer care. It will only continue to do so as long as the NHS, with the support of charities and the public, provides the right environment for it to thrive.

  • Dan Bridge is a policy manager at Cancer Research UK

Read more: Download the full report, Every Patient a Research Patient? (pdf)