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Professor Katherine Sleeman

Laing Galazka Chair in Palliative Care, King's College London

Starter Grant awardee (2013), Academy policy committee on academic careers (2016-18), Academy media training and showcase (2018), part of The Departure Lounge public engagement project (2019), death & dying policy catalysis workshop steering committee (2019), Academy FLIER leadership programme participant (2019-21)

Being part of the Academy's leadership programme FLIER raised my ambition and gave me confidence in my own ability and vision. It is not enough that we as academics do high quality research. We also must ensure our findings are used to improve outcomes for patients, carers and society.

I have been involved with the Academy of Medical Sciences since I became an NIHR Clinical Lecturer in 2010. I enjoyed attending cross-specialty Academy conferences to discuss my work and meet other early career clinical academics. In 2013 I received a Starter Grant to develop my research, and then contributed to development of academic careers more broadly through membership of the Academy’s Academic Careers Committee. I’ve also benefited from the Academy’s mentoring scheme, and from their award-winning media training and BBC and ITV media showcases to support expert female scientists .

My research aims to understand and improve care for people approaching the ends of their lives. In my clinical work I care for patients living with terminal illness, some of whom have many months or even years to live, while others will die within hours or days. Exploring their symptoms, concerns and priorities, and then helping alleviate or achieve these, is hugely rewarding.

What have you found in your research?

Most of my research uses routine data that is collected all the time as part of clinical and administrative systems, and I am particularly interested in understanding care for people with dementia. My Starter Grant project used routine data to investigate emergency department attendance among people with dementia in the last year of their lives. Even though it was a relatively small grant, it was invaluable in helping me develop towards independence as a researcher and provided me with grant management experience, which I’d not had before. It was critical to my subsequent success winning an NIHR Clinician Scientist Fellowship.

My Starter Grant research identified something very surprising. Not only did we find that emergency department attendance is common among people dying with dementia, with half of the people we studied attending an emergency department in their last month of life. We also found that people with dementia are attending emergency departments more than ever before they die.

And yet we know that hospitalisation of people with dementia can lead to physical and cognitive decline. So how do we prevent some of these potentially avoidable hospital attendances?

Explore Katherine's key Starter Grant paper here

In 2019 I joined the Academy’s first ever FLIER leadership programme cohort. I had a vision of a slightly different way to do research, where decision makers and policy makers are part of the research process from the beginning. FLIER gave me the support and opportunity to explore ways of engaging policy makers through a cross-sector project.

I subsequently received funding from Marie Curie for an innovative new research programme that aims to paint a picture of what it’s like to die in the UK and use the findings to drive policy change.

Public engagement is also an essential part of my academic work, not least because public opinion drives policy priorities. I contributed to the Academy’s major public engagement project about death and dying in 2019, The Departure Lounge (pictured below). It’s frequently said that death is a taboo. However in my experience, people are often keen to share their experiences of end of life care and are fascinated by research in this area.

My work highlighted the need for more varied indicators for evaluating the quality of care of the dying: emergency hospital attendance in the last months of life is now a national metric for end of life care.

Death affects everyone. My team have shown the global need for palliative care will double in the next forty years. But end of life care research receives just 10p in every £100 spent on medical research.

So we have to achieve the maximum impact possible with the resources we have. It is not enough that we as academics do high quality research. We also must ensure that our research findings are used to improve outcomes for patients, carers and society. The support that I have received from the Academy of Medical Sciences is helping me turn this aspiration into a reality.

The Academy is an independent charity with no major endowments or legacy funding. Help us support more people like Katherine: visit our dedicated support us webpage .

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