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Case study: Behind the scenes in the Eastern drive to restart research

Behind the scenes in the Eastern drive to restart research

When the coronavirus pandemic hit UK shores earlier this year, the NHS braced itself for the unprecedented challenge coming its way over the next few months. While frontline teams began the heroic battle for their patients’ survival, the NIHR also took a deep breath, activating a ‘bat-signal’ that researchers across the land turned towards.

The call to action was quickly accepted by a vast network of NHS clinicians, administrators, facilitators and many other healthcare workers already delivering research across all conditions, in health and social care teams nationwide. Without hesitation, they unified in the single purpose of finding a way to beat COVID-19.

Alex Miller-Fik is just one of these researchers who, despite having to shield during the lockdown, has been working hard ‘behind the scenes’ to help deliver COVID-19 studies and he is now helping to get non-COVID-19 studies back up and running again.

Alex, a Research Nurse who normally works in Neurology at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (NNUH), said:

“In late March, our hospital research resources became focused on COVID-19 related studies, with only studies deemed essential to active patient care continuing to run during this time. As the national COVID-19 situation developed, I was asked to work from home due to being in a vulnerable risk category. However, we were all redeployed to COVID-19 research and I was able to contribute to this from home.

I was a bit apprehensive about working from home at first because I rely a lot on being able to access certain systems at the Trust, but I was really impressed with how quickly the IT team managed to provide laptops to us and enabled us to access drives virtually.

As the weeks of lockdown passed, while helping to support COVID-19 research, I kept in contact with the study team for the NIHR-funded MS-STAT2 trial which I’d been delivering prior to the pandemic. Via phone and video conferences, we discussed ways in which we could continue to deliver the study remotely while managing the risks to patients and staff at NNUH.”

Over the course of a few weeks, amendments were made to the trial by the study sponsor. These included introducing remote assessments by telephone and changes to visit schedules, treatment dosage, routine blood tests, and medication dispensing, all to ensure safety while maintaining the integrity of the trial. Once all changes had been assessed and accommodated in line with the Trust’s Restart assessment process, the site's Principal Investigator led the team in getting the study back up and running.

Working in research can provide an opportunity for staff to build rapport with patients, as there is often more contact than in the delivery of standard care, and Alex has appreciated being able to do this on the MS-STAT2 trial. He said:

“A lot of the participants on the study were quite sad when we had to pause it because it’s testing a statin that’s widely available. This means, if the study proves there are benefits to it being used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, a lot of people could be helped, so the participants felt they weren’t just doing it for themselves.

As many of the participants had thought we’d be unable to pick the study up again, they were quite relieved when I contacted them to tell them we would be. Having explained the changes to all participants, and with local R&D approval and all new measures in place, we were able to recommence the MS-STAT2 study in June.

In addition to this we have been able to begin to recommence some of our other existing Neurology studies in a similarly remote way, and hope to be able to continue many of our other studies in the upcoming weeks!”

Alex feels proud to have been able to be part of the global fight against COVID-19, saying:

“When a protocol comes out from the WHO and everyone works together on it, it’s quite a special thing. It’s not just from a nursing point of view, it’s down to how everyone mobilized really quickly, from people who are predominantly admin based, as well as clinical trials assistants, research facilitators, and everyone working to deliver COVID-19 research.

It’s quite amazing to see how powerful a force we can be.”