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Consultant Medical Ophthalmologist in West of England recognised for outstanding contributions to research

Peter Scanlon

Dr Peter Scanlon, Consultant Medical Ophthalmologist at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Local Specialty Research Lead for Ophthalmology at the Clinical Research Network (CRN) West of England, received an award at the 2023 Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network CRN Awards.

The RCP and NIHR CRN Awards recognise outstanding contributions of NHS consultants and trainees who are active in research. The award specifically recognises: 

  • Clinical leadership enabling their organisation to increase its participation in clinical studies
  • Engagement with patients to inform them of new opportunities to participate in clinical research
  • Contribution to successful delivery of clinical research studies, with a particular emphasis on industry (commercial contract) studies

Peter received his award at the consultant award ceremony on 18 October 2023. Following this, we spoke with him to find out more about his career in research.

Research journey

Peter’s remarkable career has been filled with innovation and determination. After completing medical school, Peter initially pursued a path in general practice, exploring various medical disciplines, from paediatrics to A&E. Following working in general practice for 2 years, he decided to focus solely on ophthalmology. Peter ran an optician’s business from home until his eldest daughter reached an age which allowed him to return to hospital. 

Peter’s path into research was not an easy one, with him applying for a research grant 6 times before he was successful in 1998. His first research project focused on using digital cameras to screen for diabetic retinopathy, an eye condition that can cause vision loss and blindness in people who have diabetes. This research, along with the skills that he had acquired on his journey, propelled him to be asked to lead the launch of the NHS Diabetic Eye Screening Programme (DESP) in 2003. From 2003 to 2012, Peter oversaw the roll out of this programme across the country. 

“We offered the screening to roughly 2.7 million people a year with around 85% uptake. For many years diabetic retinopathy was the leading cause of blindness in the working age group, it is no longer, so that's been a massive success for the programme.”

In 2012, Peter set up the Gloucestershire Retinal Research Group (GRRG) and, from the income generated, he employed 13 staff and paid research sessions for 3 consultant colleagues and 1 specialty doctor. From 2017 to 2022, Peter was lead or co-applicant on grants and innovation awards worth £6.01m. In the space of 5 years, Peter had 59 conference abstracts accepted (11 from trainees) and he is currently co-supervising 2 PhD students. To top off this impressive list of credentials, the GRRG was the largest recruiter of any specialty at Gloucestershire Hospitals in 2021/22 and 2022/23. It is little wonder that Peter’s hard work has been recognised with this award.

Engaging communities and patients

Peter spoke about the incredible advances that the ophthalmology field has seen with regards to screening images. He is also acutely aware of the research’s limitations and is ensuring that his team is expanding and collaborating in order for the research to be applicable to everyone.

“Last year we did an industry study called CONCORDIA which looked at the accuracy of scanning for diabetic retinopathy with new cameras called scanning confocal ophthalmoscopes. We are currently at the stage where eyes need to be dilated for examination (which is uncomfortable for some), however we found that when we used these cameras, 95% of pupils didn't need dilating, which is exciting. However, 95% of our patients in Gloucestershire are white Caucasian. It can be more difficult to photograph eyes without drops if they have dark pupils and it’s important that the research is representative of those with darker pupils. We're putting in research applications now to extend the study to include people from ethnic minority groups. I'm going to be working with a screening program in North East London because they have a much higher proportion of patients from Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities than we have in Gloucestershire.”

Peter and his team are proactive in reaching those typically under-served by research by working with Community Champions from ethnic minority groups to encourage attendance to screening programmes and Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE) groups. “I spoke on an Asian radio group recently because we're wanting to talk to Asian and Afro-Caribbean patients with diabetes in our area.”

“I have employed a Patient and Public Engagement Officer who has a PhD in this field. She maintains regular contact with groups of patients in different disease areas.” A notable success in patient engagement involved partnering with a Diabetes UK group in the Forest of Dean. If a patient has had no retinopathy on the previous 2 screens there is relatively low risk, so the national programme was planning to introduce extension of the time between screening to 2 years instead of 1 year for low risk groups. Peter and his team linked up with a Diabetes UK group to discuss the effects of this on patients. The conversation led to Peter and his team discovering that some of the patients from ethnic minority groups prefer to have a fixed appointment that is sent to them rather than being asked to phone up and book. This way a relative can translate the message for them, if needed.  “Because of the feedback we received from patients, we have moved to fix appointments which work better.”

Commercial success

Peter’s impact extends to commercial research, where he played a pivotal role in the success of EYE DMI, an epidemiological study into diabetic macular ischemia, damage in the vessels that supply blood to the retina that can result in progressive and irreversible vision loss.  “The study required a particular type of specialist machinery called Angiovue. I organised to purchase one of these machines when I heard about the project and I was made the Principal Investigator for the company and contributed to their study approval and then our centre was the largest recruiter worldwide for the study.”

His collaboration with drug companies showcased his ability to navigate complex processes, contributing to the study's triumph.

Inspiring future leaders

Peter’s advice for aspiring researchers echoes his journey's resilience and determination. “Never give up. For my first research grant I had to go back to the same organisation 6 times before getting the grant.” 

For those looking to become research leaders, he said “you've got to appoint the right people and you've got to look after them.” When asked how he has managed to balance clinical practice and research responsibilities throughout his career, Peter replied “hard work, employing a good team and fighting to bring in income to pay them.” 

Recognising excellence in research

Ramesh Arasaradnam, Academic Vice President, Royal College of Physicians said,

“Our winners are some of the most skilled and talented researchers in their field. It’s a true privilege to be able to reward them for the fantastic work they’ve done.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of clinical research, making the recognition of achievements such as those made by our winners all the more important. I hope this will also serve as yet further evidence of the need to embed research within clinical practice.”

Nick Lemoine, NIHR CRN Medical Director said,

"Clinical leadership is vital for the world-leading performance of the NIHR Clinical Research Network. Each of the consultants and trainees who are prize winners this year have made outstanding contributions to the delivery of research studies in their region and it is wonderful to see the next generation of researchers coming through."