To celebrate International Clinical Trials Day 2017 we’re speaking to the ‘unsung heroes’ of clinical trials who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make them happen.

In this post, Amanda Watson, a research nurse on the National Lung Matrix Trial based in Southampton, shares what her job involves.

Patients are at the heart of it

As a research nurse, I have many different roles. I talk to patients about joining a trial and explain to them what it involves. I also manage their expectations around joining the trial and the treatment, and I explain the logistics of the trial – things like how many visits there will be.

Amanda Watson, research nurse on the National Lung Matrix, Trial, running at a Race for Life event

We’re also the ones who coordinate patients’ appointments throughout the trial – all of their blood tests, scans and treatments.

As a general rule, we try to keep these appointments to a minimum. The doctors or researchers might say they need to see someone 3 times a week, but we’ll talk to them and see if we can cut that back to once a week. Because at the end of the day, these people are giving up their time to be part of a clinical trial and we owe it to them to make it as little an intrusion and inconvenience as possible.

We’re also the main point of contact for patients during the trial, so if they feel unwell or experience side effects, we’re the ones they’ll call.

I really think that if research nurses weren’t involved in clinical trials they wouldn’t be able to happen.

Appointments wouldn’t be made, tests wouldn’t be carried out, people wouldn’t have the support they need – I don’t think things could run very well at all. And for a trial like the Matrix Trial, which is essentially 8 small trials, there’s a lot of infrastructure, protocols and guidelines that have to be adhered to at very high standards.

Going the extra mile

On top of all this, we keep an eye on how patients are doing both psychologically and physically. We’re there if someone’s having a low day and needs someone to talk to, or to answer any questions a patient might have. And we keep an eye on the family as well.

Very often, a patient’s family is their biggest support system so we want to make sure they have the support they need to help their loved through the trial and treatment.

I think the hardest part of the job is when a patient dies.

– Amanda Watson

As much as we can, when we’re booking appointments we try and work around the patient’s schedule. So if they have a big party coming up, we’ll avoid booking them an appointment for that day if it’s possible – we want to make sure they still live their life.

It might not sound like much, but doing these little things and making sure patients can still live their life as much as possible when they’re on the trial is really important.

Quantity and quality

When I graduated from nursing and women’s studies, I was looking for a job. When I spotted a one going in research I thought ‘that sounds interesting, I’ll apply for that’.

27 years later, I’m still working as a research nurse and still loving it! In that time I’ve seen some amazing things.

People sometimes moan that we’re not making progress fast enough. But I can tell you, I’ve seen a lot of things dramatically change for the better since I started working as a research nurse.

Like when I was working with kidney cancer patients and clinical trials with tyrosine kinase inhibitors started happening. Today, these drugs are used to treat certain kidney cancer patients and give them another treatment option

And when I was working in lymphoma and stem cell transplants were first used as a treatment – I was one of the first people doing them. It was amazing!

Of course there’s still more to do, particularly in lung cancer where survival remains stubbornly low. We need to find new ways to diagnose and treat the disease so more people survive.

But for me, it’s not just about the number of people surviving – it’s also about reducing side effects so people survive and have a good quality of life. It’s about quantity and quality.

I think the hardest part of the job is when a patient dies. Even though it’s difficult, you have to learn to leave work behind because there are still other patients relying on you to do your job.

Every now-and-again something will get through the armour, but there’s incredible support within the department and there’s always someone you can speak to.

I often go running as a way to distract myself from work. In fact I’ve raised £700 for Cancer Research UK by doing the Great South Run and Race for Life.

I feel really privileged to work in this job and to be a part of these wonderful patients’ lives, even if it’s only for a short while.

Without them, clinical trials wouldn’t happen.

Interview conducted by Áine McCarthy