Staggering support for NHS to do research

Becky Purvis is the Head of Policy for the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC). The following article originally appeared on her policy blog.

We all “know” the public support research – but we decided to get some numbers to back this up. And when we asked the public, a whopping 97% said they want the NHS to support research into new treatments. And 93% said they want their local NHS to be encouraged or required to support research.

Ipsos MORI polled 990 people last week, enough to be a representative sample of the UK public. And 97% of the people they spoke to said they believe that it’s important the NHS should support research into new treatments. And even more interestingly, 92% of them believed it’s important for the NHS to support research funded by charities – that’s support from the NHS to find the right patients to take part in the research, to allow NHS staff time to conduct research projects, or other kinds of help.

We also asked some more detailed questions getting into the nitty gritty. At the moment we’re really concerned that the Health & Social Care bill doesn’t place a consistent duty on all the bodies that will make up the new NHS to do research. The new commissioning consortia that are going to be run by GPs have a power to do research but they don’t have a duty to do it. We’re worried that without a duty it’s all too easy for research to slip down the list of priorities and a lack of engagement at just one level in the NHS can result in delays. This can potentially be a barrier to getting research projects off the ground, meaning it’s harder to trial new treatments in the UK (something the UK government is keen to make easier – see the plan for growth published alongside the 2011 budget where they outline their planned actions to streamline the process of conducting clinical trials in the UK).

Our polling showed that 93% of people want their local NHS to be encouraged or required to support research. So there is a lot of support for the mandate on the NHS Commissioning board to include research, and a duty on commissioning consortia to support research, be that individually or by pooling resources with fellow consortia.

We also took this opportunity to find out how involved people want to be with research. It’s all very well saying you want the NHS to support research but do people want to have opportunities to be involved in research projects themselves? The answer we got from our questions was  a great big yes.

72% would like to be offered opportunities to be involved in trials of new medicines or treatments if they suffered from a health condition that affects their day-to-day life.

80% would like to consider allowing a researcher confidential access to their medical records. The wealth of information retained by the NHS in patients’ records provides an unrivalled resource for medical research. Developing a clear framework protecting both patients and researchers and enabling the safe use of this information is vital.

And 88% would be happy to be asked to talk to researchers about their family history or give a sample of their blood to be tested in a laboratory

So we need to make sure that when people are being treated by the NHS, they are offered these opportunities. Again, consistent duties to do research across all NHS bodies will help ensure that everyone is engaged with research and this happens.

What now?

All of this emphasises the importance of making sure that as the NHS is being reformed we take the opportunity right now to make sure that research is built right into the middle as one of the core things the NHS does. If we get it right, embedding and supporting research throughout the system will help reduce some of the delays which can make it difficult to get research projects off the ground, it will ensure patients are offered opportunities to be involved in relevant research projects and it will help us do more research better, ultimately improving the care people get in the future.

We’ve outlined some of the steps that can be taken to build research into the health system in our submission to the NHS Future Forum. This includes lots of case studies explaining the difficulties we’re currently tackling and how we can tackle them.

The NHS Future Forum is expected to report early next week and it sounds like we will hear back from the government very soon after that outlining changes they plan to make to the reforms of the health bill.

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