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CRN Wessex appoints first regional social care speciality lead

An interview with Professor Lee-Ann Fenge, Social Care Speciality Lead for NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) Wessex

“I suppose I am a trailblazer,” says Lee-Ann Fenge, CRN Wessex’s first Social Care Speciality Lead and the first in the country for a Local Clinical Research Network (LCRN).

Lee-Ann’s recruitment marks a milestone for the NIHR and a noticeable focus on the wider social care issues that clinical research sometimes misses.

“Social care research doesn’t just look to treat an illness or condition, the leg or the arm, but it asks the question of ‘How did this happen and what was the cause?’ Of course, sometimes we can’t answer that question – but very often we can. By looking at socio-economic, lifestyle, geographic and relationship patterns, we are able to build a much wider picture that provides us with so many answers and opportunities for success within integrated health and social care.”

Lee-Ann’s new role is to explore this wider health and social care picture and to build greater capacity for social care research across Wessex. The initial part of her work will be to look at what already exists in Wessex, what works well and to expand on those areas.

“I’d like to see connections built with local universities, the NHS and communities,” she says. “They can undoubtedly help us grow social care research sustainably while demonstrating its impact.”

Social care research has the capacity to underpin so many different areas of health care and so many different areas of peoples’ lives.

Lee-Ann has been lecturing at Bournemouth University since 1995, after beginning her career as a hospital-based social worker, and has first-hand experience in establishing social care research pathways and exploring the varied methodologies within social care research.

“Social care research is complex – it involves a diverse range of stakeholders including local authorities, voluntary organisations, charities, private sector providers, users of services and experts by experience” she emphasises. “So the way we research has to reflect this. I’ve been privileged to be involved in so many creative and emerging forms of social care research, including through the work of the Centre for Seldom Heard Voices, which aims to create societal impact.”

Poetry, short-film projects, co-writing course books and creating conferences hosted by research participants themselves are just some of the innovative research projects that Lee-Ann has been involved in. While social care research isn’t as widely resourced or funded on the same level as clinical research, there is no shortage of creativity and capacity for creating meaningful change.

“We’re all so aware that prevention is better than a cure, but this is where social care research needs to catch up and take the lead,” explains Lee-Ann. “Social care research has the capacity to underpin so many different areas of health care and so many different areas of peoples’ lives.”

Lee-Ann is keen to point out that we are seeing the impact of social care issues first-hand and the wide-reaching effects thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Child poverty, isolation, vulnerability, abuse, unemployment, restricted access to services and transport – all of these are creating a perfect storm for social care needs and our ability to respond to them. It’s so important that we are able to grow our research and our social care provision to prevent these issues from undermining wellbeing and creating future health care needs.”

The importance of Lee-Ann’s new role has been thrust into the limelight thanks to the pandemic and her appointment to CRN Wessex has been timely.

“The pandemic has given us all the opportunity to reappraise the impact of so many social issues on wellbeing and health care. When I look back at my career, I realise how powerful my time working in hospital social work was. It provided me with first-hand experience of the differences between health and social care – there were so many perspectives and opinions in one room on how best to support a patient’s needs. I quickly became aware how fragmented our approach to patient care can be, and the importance of taking a holistic approach which considers the bigger picture.”

It’s so important that we are able to grow our research and our social care provision

Lee-Ann is hopeful that moving further towards a more integrated approach to health and social care will help to transform social care research and practice across Wessex and beyond.

“I would like for my legacy to be a sustainable model of social care research that’s embedded into organisations and seen as an essential part of creating an evidence base which underpins health and social care practice,” she summarises. “We all need to step outside the normal and expected routes for research.”

Professor Saul Faust, Clinical Director of CRN Wessex, said: “Having Lee-Ann in this new “first for NIHR” post will enable us to fit another piece into the jigsaw puzzle of research. An integrated health and social care approach has been planned by the healthcare and research systems for some time, but it has been very hard for existing healthcare researchers in NIHR to identify and work with social care researchers due to our different locations and day to day priorities. We want posts like Lee-Ann’s to push social care higher up the research agenda and to demonstrate the impact it can have on illness, inclusion and wellbeing.”

Professor Geraldine Macdonald, National Specialty Lead for Social Care, said: ‘I’ve been impressed by the sustained commitment of the Clinical Research Network to develop and support social care research even in the last, difficult, year when the Network has been called on to work at an unprecedented pace on urgent, clinical priorities. Lee-Ann’s appointment is a tangible example of this and I’m very much looking forward to working with her. Congratulations to her and to the Wessex LCRN.”