Taking on the crisis in acute care research

FLIER participant Dr Charlotte Summers is a lecturer and honorary consultant in critical care medicine at the University of Cambridge. She also works to improve the training of clinical academics in intensive care.

The people I see in my clinical practice are the ones who need advanced organ support; the ones on mechanical ventilators or on emergency dialysis machines, or who need drugs to support their blood pressure. For example, they might have pneumonia and they need emergency care to help them breathe.

In intensive care medicine, there’s a lot of what we do where we’re uncertain of the benefit or the health economics. We don’t undertake as much research as we need to. In fact, we’ve got such a critically small number of researchers in this area now that things have really hit crisis point.

I remember really clearly, seeing the FLIER programme in a circular from the Academy of Medical Sciences and reading that it would bring together people from academia and the NHS, industry and other sectors. My work is with all those sectors so it was just like a lightbulb and I knew I had to go and do this.

Some of the best bits about FLIER are the other people in the cohort. We’ve got very different perspective on things and we’ve all got very different skills. I don’t think there would ever have been any kind of meeting that would have put the 17 of us all in the same room.

My FLIER project is looking at how we can build research capability in acute care, the challenges and opportunities. We spend a huge amount of the NHS budget on unscheduled and emergency care, but almost the smallest proportion of the research and innovation spend. One of the key issues is a lack of research capability and capacity in that sector.

The traditional models around clinical academic training are predominantly focused around people who do outpatient speciality medicine, which doesn’t fit the kind of careers where you’re working shifts or where you need to maintain critical practical skills to save a life when needed.

I have to be able to secure an emergency airway at 2.30 in the morning so that someone doesn’t die within minutes. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m an academic or not, I still have to be able to do that.

With lots of the fellowship programmes, you’re only allowed to spend 20 per cent of your time at most doing clinical work. That’s probably not enough to be safe if you’re a surgeon or an emergency care setting worker. The infrastructure needs to be more flexible.

FLIER has given me the skills to try and tackle this. It’s opened doors to opportunities to make this really happen, whether that’s working with the Medical Schools Council, or with the Wellcome Trust, or the Academy.

The ultimate aim would be getting more people the training needed to undertake research and innovation in the acute care sector, and make patients better. If we can do that by the time I retire, I’d be really happy.

All of the research, the experiments and the data we generate over next few decades will eventually be proved either out of date or wrong, and newer techniques will come along. But the people we train, that is an enduring legacy because they have the chance to train other people, ad infinitum down the line. We will make patients better by focusing on the people, as opposed to just focusing on the experiments in front of us. That’s how I think about it.

 

Dr Charlotte Summers is a participant in Round 1 of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ FLIER Programme, a unique programme that will develop leaders of the future who can create collaborations across academia, industry, the NHS and government to drive innovation.

The FLIER Programme is generously supported by the Dennis and Mireille Gillings Foundation and the Government Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ‘Investment in Research Talent’ fund. If you would like to support the work of the Academy to develop talented researchers, visit our Supporters page.

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