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Case study: COVID-19 research in primary care

We speak to Jayne Longstaff and Dr Nicky Millen about the important COVID-19 study

An interview with:

  • Jayne Longstaff: Research Nurse Lead at Oaks Healthcare in Cowplain, Hampshire.
  • Dr Nicky Millen: GP Research Lead at Oaks Healthcare in Cowplain, Hampshire.

Synairgen’s COVID-19 study:

In March 2020, Synairgen plc launched a clinical trial of a treatment for patients with COVID-19. 

The drug discovery and development company, which originated from research at the University of Southampton, began testing the effectiveness of an inhaled formulation of interferon beta (SNG001). 

The Wessex-led double-blinded placebo-controlled study, which was supported by the NIHR, recruited over 200 participants from both home and hospital settings. 

Oaks Healthcare recruited 12 participants to the trial. 

Key findings were reduced odds of disease progression among at-risk patients and an improved recovery rate for COVID-19 patients receiving SNG001. Find out more:

Jayne: I’ve been at Oaks Healthcare as their research nurse for just over a year and when I joined, Synairgen’s COVID-19 study was in its early stages. The study was important to us – exploring a treatment for COVID-19 and supporting innovation within a primary care setting had the potential to help our patients. 

The trial was run out of the University of Southampton from May 2020 until April 2021 – with the team co-ordinating centrally and dispatching the distribution of trial drugs. I worked within Oaks Healthcare practice to consent patients into the trial and to hold daily Zoom or Teams calls with patients at home to teach them how to use their nebulizer and to correctly administer the treatment. 

This was such a learning curve for me because every patient has a different learning style. Not only was I often teaching them how to use and access the technology to help with the study (video calls and online questionnaires), I was also teaching them how to use their equipment via video calls. 

Speaking with them every day also took me on their emotional journey through the illness, seeing them at home with their families and seeing the disease progress was something I hadn’t factored with the study. It was incredibly emotional and I really got to know the patients and their families. 

Clinical trials are important because they have the potential to save people’s lives through new treatments, but just being part of Synairgen’s study saved the life of one of our patients. In addition to the nebulizer and the drugs, every patient had a pulse oximeter to track the oxygen levels in their blood. Our patient took the oxygen level and noticed that it had dropped below 90% – so they called an ambulance straight away. Had we not given out oximeters as part of the trial, they may not have called for help.

It helped being in contact with patients every day, it was reassuring for them – especially as their condition deteriorated. To be able to give additional support to them and their families was really rewarding and it felt like I was doing my bit to help during the pandemic. 

I think we’re really lucky in primary care as the breadth and depth of research is so much greater and we also have a large pool of patients to recruit from. COVID-19 has made patients much more research aware and this has also helped me to recruit patients to trials – most patients are supportive and happy to be involved in research. 

We’ve had to approach the research by being proactive in recruiting patients. It’s a different approach for us but one that everyone here at Oaks Healthcare is on board with. Dr Nicky Millen, our GP Research Lead here at Oaks Healthcare, has been instrumental to consenting patients into the trial and is a wonderful advocate of research. 

All the Oaks team have been fantastic at sending patients my way as we only had a small window for recruitment in the Synairgen study. Having one clinical system in primary care is a big advantage, so we are all inter-connected and the overlap helps with knowing patients and the people that could help them.

All the patients that we recruited to the study have since been re-consented as the Synairgen research team wanted to extend the study to examine the impact of long COVID-19 on patients. 

It’s been a busy year for me as I also had around 30 other studies going on at the same time, but I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to be involved in research. 

Nicky: I was really keen for the practice to be at the forefront of treatment for COVID-19. There was nothing we could offer patients at the beginning so it was important for us to be involved and leading clinical research.

I’ve been the research lead at Oaks Healthcare for 20 years and this is the first time we've had to coordinate a study digitally so it was a steep learning curve for us all. It was also the first major medical intervention study we had been involved in. It was a huge challenge. 

We have a huge cohort of patients, around 16,000, which I feel is invaluable for research and enabling treatment in the community to prevent more severe illness further down the line.