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Sunderland's GP Alliance embraces health and care research collaboration in the region

In a significant leap towards advancing health and care in the area, GP practices in Sunderland are taking a collective approach to engaging in health research, marking a transformative shift towards becoming more research-oriented. 

Formed in 2015, Sunderland GP Alliance (SGPA) is a well-established alliance with excellent links to all 36 GP practices in Sunderland. As an organisation, they coordinate services for all practices. It exists to help GPs work collaboratively for the benefit of patients and staff and works on a not-for-profit basis, ensuring any surplus is reinvested back into better services for patients. SGPA hopes to support practices to deliver research to previously under-served communities.

Sunderland has higher levels of long-term conditions, disability, frailty, dementia, smoking, organ failure and alcohol dependence than the England average. The SGPA hopes that bringing research opportunities to patients in the region will provide new methods of managing these chronic health needs and increase patient engagement in their health and wellbeing.

As a city previously under-served by research, research activity in Sunderland has increased from virtually no involvement, to five practices now actively taking part in studies, with a forecasted doubling in the city’s recruitment figures relative to the last financial year. SGPA has recently requested capital funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network (CRN) to help build on their recent success in increasing primary care research activity across the city. This includes investing in a team of Research Coordinators to support and engage practices to get involved in NIHR portfolio studies. 

Three notable initiatives by Hetton Surgery, Monument Surgery and Bridge View Medical Group are at the forefront of this positive change, demonstrating the city's commitment to enhancing patient outcomes through innovative studies.

Hetton Group Practice successfully enrolled their first patient in the DaRe2THINK study, marking a significant milestone for the surgery.

The trial focuses on assessing the effectiveness of anticoagulant medication (medication that helps to prevent blood clots) in patients with atrial fibrillation (a common abnormal heart rhythm). The study will assess whether starting anticoagulants earlier can prevent adverse outcomes and vascular dementia. 

The SGPA are also looking to coordinate their first project across Sunderland by supporting the SOLID study setup at multiple practices across the city. 

The SOLID study aims to find out how to identify people with liver disease before irreversible damage has occurred, by providing a liver assessment during a patient’s health check or annual review at their GP practice. Undiagnosed liver disease is common in the community, and it is often not identified because people frequently have no symptoms. Importantly, if liver disease is identified early, then treatment or lifestyle changes can reverse the liver damage and reduce the risk of people developing severe liver disease.

Monument surgery has launched the SOLID study as one of their first research endeavours. This practice benefits from having both a research-experienced GP and Advanced Nurse Practitioner, who are able to offer SGPA support with their knowledge and experience of managing research projects in a busy practice environment.

The SOLID study adopts a site-specific approach by recruiting patients on site within the surgery itself. This strategy aims to streamline the research process and enhance participant engagement. By conducting the study on-site, Monument Surgery aims to involve the local community more actively.

Lastly, Bridge View Medical Group is the first Deep End practice to take part in research in Sunderland. The Deep End network consists of 36 GP practices serving patients living in the most socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods in the North East and North Cumbria (NENC) region. The network aims to improve and change the way primary care is delivered to deprived populations, to meet patients’ needs and reduce health inequalities. 

They have recently signed up to NIHR portfolio studies, looking at the use of shared medical appointments for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD, the name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties) patients and dementia risk assessment tools.

Dr Rory Mackinnon, GP Partner and Trainer, Bridge View Medical Group and Medical Director, Sunderland GP Alliance, said: 

Being part of the Deep End network has really helped us to become more research active and hopefully this can help to ensure that our patients are better represented in studies. With the support received, we've already been able to participate in more studies in the last few months than we have managed over the previous few years.  The collaborative approach between the NIHR, the Deep End network, and us has been really helpful.”

Every area in the NENC region, including Sunderland, has dedicated support from a Research Operations Officer/Coordinator within the NIHR CRN NENC, as well as access to training, funding bids and advice from local GP Engagement leads to help with the facilitation of research. 

The SGPA aims to continue work with each practice in Sunderland to get them research-ready. With the support of NIHR CRN NENC, they have identified studies to take forward in 2024 which will offer research opportunities to their patients and which are actively seeking new sites to reach recruitment targets. 

As Sunderland embraces a more research-active approach to healthcare, these initiatives mark the beginning of a transformative time for the city's GP practices. With a commitment to advancing medical knowledge and improving patient outcomes, Sunderland is positioning itself as a hub for innovative health research.

Caroline Wroe, Clinical Director of the National Institute for Health and Care Research Clinical Research Network North East North Cumbria, said:

I am delighted to witness the initiatives led by Sunderland, showcasing a significant shift towards a more research-active healthcare approach. Both the DaRe2THINK and SOLID study are exemplary efforts to improve patient outcomes, underscoring the commitment of Sunderland’s GP practices to advancing medical knowledge and transforming the region into a hub for health research. Thank you to all of those involved in making these commendable research milestones happen.

For more information on the SGPA, please visit here.