Your Path in Research – Samuel Hey, COVID-19 Research Fellow at North Manchester General Hospital
As part of the NIHR Your Path in Research campaign – which supports health care professionals to get more involved in research – Dr Samuel Hey, COVID-19 Clinical Research Fellow and Internal Medical Trainee at North Manchester General Hospital, shares how caring for patients during the pandemic sparked his passion and first steps into research.
I’m an Internal Medical Trainee but am currently taking a year out of training to pursue my interest in Infectious Diseases as a Clinical Research Fellow. In January 2021, I joined the COVID-19 Research Team at North Manchester General Hospital (NMGH) to help identify, recruit, and follow up patients in COVID-19 research trials.
It’s been a steep learning curve – but one I am immensely proud to have been involved in.
Responding to the pandemic has brought many of us into roles that we never expected to do, with responsibilities that were new to many of us. Throughout this year I have been involved in the care of COVID-19 patients – initially in Intensive Care, then the Infectious Diseases Ward, and now in my role with the COVID-19 Research Team at NMGH. I have seen COVID-19 through many different lenses, and first wanted to get involved in research when a patient under my care was randomised to a trial – which is when they’re randomly given either a new drug or treatment being tested in a trial, or a placebo or current treatment, to compare it against.
Research is something that is often put on a pedestal by junior clinicians – something that is often thought of as being in the remit of colleagues later in their careers rather than by juniors. The nature of COVID-19 has completely changed that.
Rather than encountering patients in outpatient settings they can instead be found in the Emergency Department, Acute Medical Units and Intensive Care Units (ICU). This is the environment where junior clinicians can be at the forefront of patient identification and recruitment. They can make important first steps in enhancing patients’ awareness of and supporting them to participate in research.
With no prior experience of clinical trials, initially getting to grips with all the procedures during a pandemic was certainly daunting!
However, one of the best things about being involved with the NMGH COVID-19 Research Team is that there is a depth of knowledge and experience in every member of the team.
There feels like there is no hierarchy and everyone is working together to support each other and the patients to get the best outcomes. I felt well supported and able to develop into my research role from the start.
The team have supported me in undertaking the NIHR Associate Principle Investigator (PI) scheme, which helps develop junior clinicians such as myself to become PIs in the future. This has given me the opportunity to be an ‘Associate PI’ for the RECOVERY trial, where I’ve gradually taken on more responsibilities of a senior researcher, while still having oversight and support from a senior PI. This has seen me involved in not just trial recruitment, but also wider management of the members of the research team and working with other teams across NMGH to encourage recruitment.
As we move through the pandemic and recruit patients to large-scale studies such as RECOVERY and REMAP-CAP, we continue to find out what does and doesn’t work to help these patients, thus ensuring more patients get the best possible treatment. The cohorts of patients we have recruited to studies such as STORM CHASER (a vaccine-like study using antibodies) and ACCORD (which looks for new treatments for COVID-19) need regular follow up, and developing relationships with these patients as they recover from illness is wonderful. I sometimes get excited to ring patients up after seeing them through their hospital stay and now throughout their recovery!
When I compare where we were last year on ICU – with this new illness, no evidenced treatments, or idea of what we were facing – to where we are now where we have evidenced treatments that work and are saving lives, it gives you a lot of hope.
There certainly is a sense of pride with how much we have been able to discover in one year. However, COVID-19 patients are still being admitted to hospital, and despite all the advances they are still becoming unwell – therefore these is still a clear indication to continue finding out more. New COVID-19 clinical trials continue to open, and are developing new treatments, and I’m very proud to be a part of that.
Research doesn’t have to be something left until later in your career, and sometimes a junior perspective in research can offer alternative approaches that might not have been thought about before. To be able to actively influence the study of a field or a condition that you’re interested in, and potentially make the outcomes for those patients better, is incredibly worthwhile. It also means a lot to empower patients and give them the options to shape their disease.
I would advise colleagues to complete the NIHR Good Clinical Practice (GCP) course regardless of whether you’re involved in research. It demystifies what clinical trials are like and the steps to make them safe, has important lessons for history, and it means that you’re all ready to go if you do have the opportunity to pursue research.
By getting involved in research as early as possible, you can slowly build expertise and take more responsibility when further opportunities come forward.
For me, it has helped me gain important points for speciality applications but more importantly I feel more able to discuss and understand publications and the methodology behind them.
I’m nearing the end of my Associate PI role for RECOVERY, and I feel really lucky to have been given the opportunity. It was an experience above and beyond acting as a Sub investigator and meant that over time I got to know the trial inside-out and was able to make meaningful decisions about the direction of RECOVERY at our site.
In terms of patient care, it allowed me to build relationships and understand just what research can mean to a patient. I was most impressed by how even really ill patients were happy to be on RECOVERY, not just because it might benefit them, but because they were so happy to help and be a part of the wider response to COVID-19 and to help others.