Case study: The benefits of a role in research
In this interview, Dr Whitbread share his experience of recruiting participants to COVID-19 vaccine trials and explains how a role in research has benefitted him
In my previous medical life, I was a surgeon in the RAF and NHS, and Honorary Surgeon to Her Majesty the Queen. I had left clinical practice five years before COVID-19 emerged and was happily retired on the Isle of Wight. When the pandemic began I had my Licence to Practice restored and started to look for opportunities to help.
I’d looked around at other opportunities with my local GP surgeries and pharmacies but I couldn’t find anywhere that could usefully employ me. At about the same time, my wife and I relocated to the mainland as she was finding the commute across the Solent difficult. She picked up the call from the NIHR Clinical Research Network Wessex for expressions of interest in the Hub Doctor role and passed it to me.
I want to encourage doctors who are close to retirement, GPs with sessions to spare and those seeking portfolio-type employment to do something to help with research.
It sounded interesting but, having been rejected elsewhere, I wasn’t confident that I would be accepted. Nevertheless, I sent in my expression of interest. I had a telephone interview in October 2020 and started work at the COVID-19 Vaccine Research Hub in early January 2021.
My role as a Hub Doctor is to consent people into the trials, assess their medical history and prescribe study treatments. Participants return on a regular basis for review, when I will spend time talking to them to see if they have experienced any adverse events, categorise those adverse events, answer questions, and give health advice.
I will make decisions about whether events or blood results need to be referred to their GP, or escalated to a specialist team while recording adverse events in order to build a body of evidence around the vaccines.
I had been a Principal Investigator (PI) for an observational study before, but working at the Vaccine Research Hub is very different because we are still learning about COVID-19 and emerging candidate vaccines; I’m used to applying evidence, but being part of collecting and producing evidence is a very different experience.
Consenting patients into trials is also different from gaining surgical consent – the standards are very strict and it’s a much more formal process. There has been a lot of training on the job at the Hub and, with so many different studies coming through it can be a challenge to keep up with everything. All the studies have different protocols and plans to read through and learn, which are updated continually.
Another key difference with the vaccine trials is that the people who volunteer for them are a self-selecting population who are generally well and very altruistic – this is very different for me, so it’s important I’m assessing whether they are taking part for the right reasons. Are they aware of any risks? Are they able to make an informed decision?
One thing that I have gained hugely from working at the hub is talking to patients, listening to them and giving healthcare advice.
One thing that I have gained hugely from working at the hub is talking to patients, listening to them and giving healthcare advice. I had missed that during retirement and working at the hub gives me the chance to do that again, but without the pressure of acute clinical practice.
I want to encourage doctors who are close to retirement, GPs with sessions to spare and those seeking portfolio-type employment to do something to help with research. Working at the Vaccine Research Hub has given me the opportunity to keep my mind active, to refresh and grow my knowledge through reading and learning, and the diverse backgrounds of the current Hub Doctors are often helpful when we encounter participants with unusual conditions.
I believe that we could do all sorts of useful research from the Hub moving forward, with the Hub Doctor playing a really important role in facilitating the safe delivery of clinical research while allowing Research Fellows to focus on the academic side of their own research.