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Case study: “We’re stronger by working together” - Primary Care Research Nurse on her inspiring 20-year research career

Shaping the Future - Karen Norcott, a Primary Care Research Nurse and Manager at The Breckland Alliance

Karen Norcott, a Primary Care Research Nurse and Manager in Norfolk, has worked in research for over 20 years, and in that time, has been at the helm of pioneering primary care research.

Karen is based at The Breckland Alliance, comprising of three GP practices: School Lane Surgery and Grove Surgery in Thetford and Watton Medical Practice, which covers approximately 45,000 patients.

Karen has held various nursing jobs over the years and secured her first research position back in 2000, prior to the formation of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), and when research roles were “very few and far between.”

This position was for a commercial company which provided research nurses for primary and secondary care across East Anglia and Sheffield.

Karen began working for The Breckland Alliance as a Research Nurse in 2018 and within nine months, had enrolled the site into 19 different studies on the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) portfolio, and had acquired their first commercial study independently.

The studies Karen has undertaken cover a wide range of conditions, including rheumatology, diabetes, cancer, loneliness and malnutrition. The studies vary and can be new medication, new devices, as well as observational or survey based.

Early in her role, Karen remembers a time when a Cambridge based study team approached her for help with finding 200 patients in ten days.

As a result, they were able to text 7500 people about the study and within days, the study team were overwhelmed with interest and managed to reach their target in time.

Because of Karen’s success in growing studies and related recruitment, The Breckland Alliance now have a dedicated research unit instead of just one dedicated nurse, which Karen describes as “a real highlight”. She said:

“I love working in research because I find it really exciting, it's very varied and I love hitting targets.

“We've been recommended to other study teams and that makes me feel very proud.

“For a particular study last year, we were the second highest recruiting site in the UK. I also love getting a world or UK-first recruit, it’s like the cherry on the cake!”

The patient-centred aspect of her role is a particular highlight for Karen. She said:

“I really enjoy seeing patients and because some studies go on for several years, you get to know them, and people's lives can change a lot in that time.

“People feel that they've got a relationship with us, and it feels a bit more like a family as everybody is local.”

Karen has also helped to establish commercial research in the primary care setting, which is a world she finds particularly engaging, as she is able to bridge her knowledge together. She said:

“The commercial world is quite exciting as they work in a different realm to the NHS.

“I've worked with these pharmaceutical companies, and I know how they work, and I also know how research in the NHS works, so I can bridge this knowledge to deliver research.”

Karen praises the opportunities offered by the NIHR, as they ensure that studies are delivered effectively and correctly, and provide the infrastructure needed to provide training, which did not exist when Karen first started her research career 20 years ago.

The Breckland Alliance were awarded grants by CRN East of England earlier this year to improve diversity and include more people from deprived areas.

As part of this work, the team have been out in the community talking to more people and increasing public knowledge about research.

CRN East of England’s support for primary care research has generated a strong relationship for other sites too, which has proved valuable to Karen and her team. She said:

“Research is just amazing, which is why I have made it my career for over 20 years.

“We’re stronger by working together. We share ideas, and other people know things that you don't know, and you can ask for help and advice.

“It’s good to have people to talk to, and CRN East of England is fantastic for facilitating that.”

Find out more about how the NIHR can support ‘new to research’ staff and early career researchers.