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Case study: Professor Mahmood Bhutta, ENT Consultant discusses his research career and how he has diversified into areas outside his clinical specialism

In Your Path to Research - a series that uncovers the research community across the National Institute of Health Research Clinical Research Network Kent, Surrey and Sussex region – we speak with Professor Bhutta about his research career and how he has diversified into areas outside his clinical specialism.

How did you start your research career?

I must admit I didn't initially have great enthusiasm for research, because much of the research I saw happening around me did not have clear patient orientated outcomes. It sometimes seemed to me people only undertook research projects to add to their CV.

However, when I joined the ENT training programme in Oxford, I was made aware of an opportunity to lead a research project in a topic I was interested in. The Genetics of Otitis Media Study looked at genetic susceptibility to middle ear inflammation, and in particular a form known as glue ear – which is the most common cause of hearing loss in children. We were collecting saliva from children having grommets inserted into their ears and testing the saliva for genes that were identified in animal models to be linked to chronic middle ear inflammation.

It did take me a little while to decide this research was something I wished to pursue. When I did go for it, I was lucky enough to receive fellowship funding and then took three years out of surgical training to do that project. It ended up being one of the largest studies in the country, recruiting over 4,000 individuals from 35 UK centres. What I really enjoyed was having the time to think about something in great depth and develop expertise in a particular area - and these are the reasons why I continued with a research career.  

What did you do after this first study?

Shortly after completing my PhD at Oxford I was offered a joint clinical and academic lecturer post at University College London to complete my training. After that I went to Cambodia for five months and then Australia for a year. Going to Australia came about as a result of my work on the Genetics of Otitis Media Study because the academic group in Australia were also doing research related to that topic, and were keen to work with me. But during this time, I also had the opportunity to develop my interest in global health, and in particular delivering ear and hearing care to remote or disadvantaged populations.

 

When did you start in your current role?

I became an ENT Consultant at University Hospitals Sussex in Brighton four years ago. When I started I was initially purely clinical, but I was fortunate that Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) wanted to take me on, and recently I have been appointed as chair in ENT surgery.

I have diversified my research interests. In the field of global ear and hearing care I’m a consultant for The World Health Organization (WHO) on their programme on prevention of deafness and hearing loss and have delivered and evaluated training for primary health workers in Uganda, South Africa, Nepal, Fiji and Zambia.

I've also diversified my research into the area of sustainability – which is an area I have worked in for many years. I co-founded the Sustainable Healthcare Group at BSMS, and am Green Lead for University Hospitals Sussex. I am supervising a PhD in carbon footprinting surgical care, have been commissioned to chair a national report in sustainable surgery, and recently chaired a virtual panel discussion at the COP26 World Health Organization Health Pavilion to discuss how the environmental impact of healthcare can be mitigated.

Tell us about the work you do as the CRN Kent, Surrey and Sussex ENT specialty lead?

I promote research and encourage ENT colleagues to engage with research projects. I am also trying to grow local studies, for example to look at different types of hearing aids and the outcomes of their use, and developing low-cost solutions to use in resource limited settings. I am also working with colleagues at the University of Brighton who have developed a novel technique of delivering drugs into the inner ear using a pump.  There’s lots of potential!

What do you enjoy about a research career?

I enjoy the freedom that research gives me, to explore a range of questions that I want to ask, and to push things forward. I also enjoy working with diverse people and geographies, for example I am currently working on projects with laboratory scientists in Brighton, with policy developers in the UK government, with a veterinary surgeon in California, and with health workers in Malawi.

What do you want to do next?

There is lots I am doing – but the sustainability agenda has at long last been recognised as important, and is now taking up a lot of my time.  The NHS contributes over 4% of the total national carbon footprint, so we need to understand the best way to reduce that, including through engendering institutional and individual behaviour change.

What advice would you give to colleagues about a career in research?

When doctors are in training we often concentrate on acquiring the skills needed to complete the training programme. But it's important to step back and think about the sort of career you want at the end. For those who want variety in their career, I always advise trainees to think about what else they might want to do. For some people that might be teaching, or going into management, and for some it will be a research career. I find research is always interesting because it's always something different and something new. I'm very busy, but I'm never bored!