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New Horizons for Primary Care post-pandemic

On Thursday 25 May, NIHR Clinical Research Network North East and North Cumbria’s (CRN NENC) Primary Care Speciality Group hosted a face-to-face Primary Care Research event: “CRN New Horizons - partnering for growth across the health system of North East and North Cumbria”.

Primary care has a very important place within the wider research system, providing the ideal research setting to access the broadest range of participants for contribution to the evidence base across a wide range of specialties. Studies within primary care settings can address disease diagnosis, prevention and management of long term and chronic conditions, as well as the treatment of common conditions, such as flu. Primary care research also promotes a healthier lifestyle for patients, which in turn helps manage chronic conditions and prevent ill-health in the future. As a specialty and a setting, primary care has a pivotal role to play across our region in making clinical research a more democratic endeavour and addressing the health inequalities that we all care so much about.

The aim of the event was to provide an opportunity for primary care colleagues and researchers across the North East and North Cumbria to meet and network, as well as explore collaborative research projects, partnerships and share best practice.

The event took place at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Durham. As the in-person event was the first since the pandemic, attendance was high, with around a hundred delegates. The audience ranged from medical students, to consultants and research leaders. 97% of people felt the event fulfilled their reasons for attending, with positive feedback all round. 70% rated the content, agenda and the overall event as excellent, and the remaining 30% as good. Some delegate quotes are below:

I loved hearing about patient perspectives, was really helpful as it allowed us to ask questions throughout

The whole event was very well organised and run. Excellent opportunity to network after the event

Really enjoyed James Lunn, relaxed but very informative, good team work, people were helpful in guiding us through the event from start and finish, great to see patient feedback

Very thorough event which didn't take up too much time, direct to the point and very enjoyable

Staff from forty-eight different organisations attended, including GP practices, primary care networks and federations.

Primary care networks are GP practices working together with community, mental health, social care, pharmacy, hospital and voluntary services to build on existing services to enable a greater provision of proactive, personalised, coordinated and more integrated health and social care.

A GP federation is a group of GP practices that has formed an organisation to work together in providing health services and improving patient experience. For example, by sharing best practice and harmonising documentation and processes, with the aim of carrying out processes once, for the benefit of all the practices in the federation.

The event began with an opportunity for attendees to arrive and engage in networking activities. Following that, a series of presentations were delivered by a variety of professionals working in primary care research.

The keynote speaker was Professor Philip Evans, who has over 25 years’ experience of leading primary care research networks, both nationally and locally. He is currently the Deputy Medical Director of the NIHR Clinical Research Network and a Professor of Primary Care Research at the University of Exeter. He started the event with a comprehensive overview of NIHR Primary Care research; past, present, and future, discussed what was learnt from the pandemic and the importance of having a primary care strategy.

Morag Burton, the Chief Operating Officer of the NIHR CRN NENC, provided a regional update on primary care research. Her presentation shed light on recent developments and performance in the field as well as future aspirations and how the CRN can help primary care researchers and other healthcare practitioners. She recognised that the scope of primary care research continues to expand beyond traditional GP practices to other settings, such as care homes and hospices who are becoming increasingly research aware and active.

Dr Stuart McPherson, a Consultant Hepatologist and Clinical Lead at the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, presented information about the SOLID study, which he is currently the Chief Investigator for. He offered an overview of the study, which aims to assess the performance of liver fibrosis biomarkers in individuals with risk factors for liver disease in primary care, ultimately to develop the most clinically and cost effective pathway to enhance the early detection of advanced liver fibrosis. Fiona Sanderson, a participant in the study, gave an inspiring perspective on what it is like to take part in an NIHR study and the benefits that it has brought not only to her, but others, who now feel equally inspired to be part of NIHR research.

Brandy Coote, the Head of Clinical Trial Optimisation at Akrivia Health, a commercial company which enables organisations to work securely with the world’s largest and most in depth datasets in relation to psychiatric health, introduced Akrivia's National Centre for Mental Health (NCMH). NCMH collects information from practices with high referrals to primary and secondary care mental health services about participants’ mental and physical health, lifestyle and background, as well as biological samples, and links these to routine clinical NHS data. She emphasised its significance in improving mental health outcomes from diagnosis, treatment and support by engaging with services and their users, the third sector and the wider public to increase the understanding of mental illness, its potential causes and methods of management, by supporting and undertaking mental health research.

After a brief comfort break, Dr Stuart Watson, a Clinical Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University and an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, discussed the clinical and cost effectiveness of the ASCEnD Ariprazole/Sertraline combination in treating bipolar depression, as well as assessing the Care Pathway Enhancement (CaPE) clinic, a clinic for bridging the gap between primary and secondary care research and increasing the equity of research access for patients. CaPE has enabled 60 patients to be seen, with 15 randomised to the intervention arm, as well as developing links with autism services and mental health trusts. These clinics are poised and ready to be deployed into Deep End communities, furthering the work to reduce health inequalities.

Dr Yusuf Soni, a GP Partner at Riverside Medical Practice and Arrival Practice in Stockton-on-Tees, gave an overview of the Healthcare Evaluation of Absolute Risk Testing (HEART) study - a commercial study which assessed if the addition of genetic information (in patients’ blood and saliva) provided differing information around cardiovascular disease risk - from both a GP perspective and the feedback received from Paula Rice, a participant in the study. The presentation shed light on the study's outcomes and its impact on patient care.

The final speaker was Dr James Lunn, the Clinical Director at North West North Tyneside Primary Care Network, who concluded the event with an engaging presentation highlighting the benefits of conducting research in general practice, aiming to share best practices about weaving research into practice and ideas about employing new staff and getting them enthused about research. Following the event, delegates rated Dr Lunn’s presentation very highly, citing it as a highlight of the day.

Throughout the event, attendees gained valuable insights into the current landscape of Primary Care research, ongoing studies, and innovative approaches to enhance patient care and outcomes in various areas of healthcare. The event concluded with an opportunity for the panel of speakers to answer any questions from the audience, who had also been asking questions via Slido during the event.

Finally, CRN NENC awarded certificates for: the practice with the highest recruitment (Carmel), the practice running the greatest number of studies (Carlisle Healthcare) and federation of the year, demonstrating greatest growth (TyneHealth).

There were also exhibition stands from MedConnect North, STATIC and ATTACK, Health Checks for Autistic Adults, Synexus and CRN NENC Study Support Service and Learning and Development who attendees were encouraged to visit.

Hilary Allan, Research Delivery Manager, who chaired the event, said:

The event was incredibly productive, the programme giving exceptional representation of the power of collaborative partnership in making high quality research available across all communities of the region. All speakers were inspiring for existing and new research partners and we look forward to building on the many new connections.