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Case study: Dorset patient research ambassador begins PhD inspired by his contribution to health research

Richard's PHD looks at how to communicate research through the arts

Richard Lawson is a Patient Research Ambassador at Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. In this role, he helps to spread the word about the importance of health research as well as helping to shape research at the hospital. Find out about his experience, his reasons for getting involved and how he's helping to develop the role. 

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience of health research

I am now retired but I was an English and Drama teacher, I also taught English as a second language. Towards the end of my career I specialised in teaching basic skills to people who failed their GCSEs - it was rewarding to get them through those courses so they could go on to further education.

I was in the Navy for a decade before teaching and when I left I joined an oil company, first selling petrol and then oil sales. I got made redundant from my company and decided I wanted a change - I wanted to teach. I left school with five O levels and went back to the Open University at the age of 40. Later I started a drama course which I converted into a BA and then a Masters. In becoming a teacher I felt I had finally found my vocation. I had just worked jobs beforehand and becoming a teacher was something I felt really passionate about.

I am thrilled that I have recently been accepted to do my PhD at Bournemouth University. Through my doctorate I will be looking at raising awareness of clinical research through the arts. The arts are a fantastic way to communicate with people from all sorts of backgrounds.

What motivated you to become a patient research ambassador?

I first became interested in research when doing my Masters. A few years later I had an operation on my ankle and that was where I experienced clinical research first-hand. The anaesthetist was running a study on pain relief that I took part in but I unfortunately didn’t hear anything else about it after that day. I noticed the opportunity to become a Patient Research Ambassador at my local hospital so I decided to apply - I was interviewed and duly accepted. It just clicked, I loved starting to talk to people about research!

What activities have you been involved with as a patient research ambassador and what difference do you feel they make to others and to research?

I deliver staff inductions to make sure all new staff members know that we are a research active hospital. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we would have a stand at the staff induction day once a month where myself and research staff would talk to people about research. Since the pandemic, I have been representing the department to free up research staff to support COVID-19 research.

Each International Clinical Trials Day we would have a stand in the hospital with some of the other Patient Research Ambassadors and research staff. I also helped to organise a stand outside Tesco in Dorchester before the pandemic. I would say most people had no idea that we do research at the hospital at all so it was fantastic to be able to communicate that to people.

I like to get involved in research as much as I can.  I have sat on Patient and Public Involvement panels for studies.  I am a patient co-applicant on an in house orthopaedic study, I have acted as a patient mentor to an early career researcher, and I am a co-applicant on a study with Bournemouth University.  I have presented to local stakeholders such as my local surgery’s Patient Participation Group. I have even written articles for local newsletters and co-authored a paper about involving the public in research with three of my colleagues in the region.

I recently took a new approach to communicating about research in a presentation I delivered in Bridport.  My aim was to get across that patients are  partners in the process. I think the more we are able to get this across, the more people will want to support research.

Why is International Clinical Trials Day an important day to mark?

It’s an opportunity to raise awareness, to answer questions and to deal with people’s worries. When I first spoke to people in the hospital about research I thought it was interesting but didn’t feel as though we got through to the right people. I think you need to get out to the streets. For example, for health awareness days it would be a good idea to get outside respective charity shops and speak to people about relevant research.

There’s a short film about research that I love to show people called ‘People are Messy’. In another play produced by the Theatre of Debate called Learning to Love the Grey (2000) there is a wonderful quote about research which says, ‘writing books that people won’t read is as bad as not telling us’.  I think that’s something that needs to be addressed. Even though some medical journals are open access, they’re still not accessible to people. This is where health literacy comes in, it's making sure that people can understand what we are communicating to them.

What would you say to someone interested in becoming a Patient Research Ambassador?

I’d say to sign up if it's of interest to you. It’s been the most rewarding experience for me, almost a second vocation. It's been absolutely absorbing - I just love doing it and going into the hospital to help people.

Find out more

In 2019, the work of Dorset County Hospital's research volunteers, known locally as Patient Research Ambassadors, was recognised at the CRN Wessex Awards. The group received the award for excellence in patient and public involvement and engagement in recognition of their work to promote the benefits of health and care research.

Find out more about research at Dorset County Hospital.

To find out more about how you can get involved in health research or become a Research Champion, please visit