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Case study: East Kent’s strategic investment in research

East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust opened a brand new Clinical Trials Unit at the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital in Margate last month. The opening is part of a larger drive to establish the Trust as a regional centre for research.

“We want every patient who comes into our trust to be offered the opportunity to participate in a research study.”

You might think this is an overly ambitious aim, but Jess Evans, director of research and innovation at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust doesn’t think so. “When a patient visits the hospital, we should immediately think ‘what research can we offer them?’, and if the answer is ‘none’, we should then be asking what that patient needs, and look to fill the gap, i.e. what research can we do in this area.”

Jess’s vision almost provides a dictionary definition of the term “research active hospital” – a place where all activity is focused around the patient, and research is fully integrated into the services provided.

But it takes more than words to achieve that. For a start, it requires investment, and more importantly perhaps, it requires leadership - the creation of a research culture that permeates through the Trust from the top.

“There is so much enthusiasm for research here, you can feel the energy,” says Jess. “I took the role of director of research and innovation less than a fortnight before COVID hit. It was a huge shock. All of a sudden, I had 170 open studies and 2,500 patients. But as difficult as that was, it showed me just how much can be achieved when everyone pulls together. And that is exactly what happened in our Trust.

“The pandemic really put research at the forefront of everyone’s minds – not only our board and our executives, but our patients and the local community. So much so that the local Mason’s chapter raised funds for a pathology space. Everyone has seen what effectively-run research studies can achieve, and now everyone wants to keep that momentum going.”

COVID had all research teams on the back foot. But the performance of East Kent’s research team carrying out complex interventional COVID studies in unimaginably demanding circumstances, inspired a fundamental strategic shift for the Trust.

“Research has become a central pillar of the trust’s strategic vision,” says Jess. “One of our True North objectives – which are the Trust’s guiding principles – is ‘the Future is Research’. And the Trust has invested in growing our capacity.

“We opened our new Clinical Trials Unit in June, and our chairman and CEO both came to our opening. They are strongly of the view that this Trust needs to be research active – it is where we see the future.”


For today, and tomorrow

The opening of the Clinical Trials Unit (CTU) in Margate was not simply a physical manifestation of the Trust’s commitment to research, and its vision for the future. It was created to meet an increase in demand for research services in the Trust today.

“The Trust’s commitment to research came first,” says Jess. “Once we started to invest time and resources into it, things quickly grew to the point where we needed a dedicated facility in order to deliver what we wanted to achieve.”

The team’s amazing performance during the pandemic, and the performance of NHS research teams around the country raised the profile of research to the point that it has attracted investment from external partners, and the CTU is partly being funded by the model manufacturer Hornby, which is headquartered in Margate.

“It is great to see enthusiasm growing in the community itself, and having a dedicated CTU has given our work greater visibility,” says Jess. “In the few weeks since it opened the phone has constantly been ringing. People from around the hospital and the university are approaching us with ideas, and the level of interest is fantastic.”

So, opening a dedicated unit has obviously increased capacity for research at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, but – as important, if not more so - is the effect it has had on the clinicians working in the Trust, in terms of putting research front-of-mind.

“We all know that the more research-active we are as clinicians, the better our outcomes will be,” Jess, who is also a Consultant Colorectal and General Surgeon at the Trust, explains. “The role of the research department must be to encourage, support and help to develop those ideas. Having a dedicated CTU is part of that, but research needs to be happening everywhere – in all departments and at every level.”

Communication is key to building a research culture in an organisation, and at East Kent the launch of a dedicated CTU has created a kind of focal point for the research team to interact with clinicians.

As Jess puts it: “Often clinicians need a way into research and we are able to provide that gateway - encouraging them and showing them how to get it done. From there, we have found that the researchers tend to spread the message through their own departments and professional networks.”