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Transitioning from clinical practice into research: A nurse’s view


In May 2022 I started working at a respiratory trials unit as a Clinical Research Nurse. I applied after seeing a post advertised on NHS jobs. I joined the urgent public health trial, PANORAMIC, which tests antiviral treatments in the community.

During my induction, I spent hours reading through the Good Clinical Practice guidelines (the gold standard ethical framework for research) and learning about the Human Tissue Act. It felt like I had entered another world, full of strange acronyms and a myriad of regulations.

Discovering research

Fast-forward seven months and I’m now coordinating a cough trial for participants with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. This month, I have my first Site Initiation Visit (SIV) with the sponsor, trial coordinators and the rest of the research team.  An SIV is held to prepare and set up a research site to conduct a study[1].  How did I find myself here?

For the first five years of my nursing career, I regarded research nursing as a mysterious department in the backwaters of the NHS.  Although interested, I wasn’t entirely sure what research nurses did. Several years ago, during the height of the pandemic, a friend described the research nurses she worked with in the local hospital:

“They have a better work-life balance, they enjoy the role and feel like they can positively contribute to healthcare through research”.

Close to burn-out in my job at the time, I eventually applied for a clinical research post. I was doubtful I would secure an interview with no prior research background. To my surprise, I got the job.

Variety is the spice of life

Compared to the constant demands of an understaffed day on the wards, my initial impression was how varied the pace of work is.

When trials are in full swing, nurses are very busy with clinic visits, lab work and documentation. In between trials, there are data queries to answer, and a lot of time is spent liaising with external stakeholders to coordinate new studies. But it is a less physically demanding job, and I generally find I have more time to complete tasks.

So, what does it take to work in research nursing? If I had to sum it up, I would say it requires you to be:

  • Engaged – you need to keep up to date with the latest developments in research and take part in your local Clinical Research Network. I enjoy taking part in forums and seminars as part of my role, something I didn’t get to do much of in clinical practice.
  • Organised – clinical trials need a meticulous eye for detail, and you need to keep very accurate records. I’m becoming used to processing a larger amount of information in greater detail, in a shorter space of time.
  • Adaptable – research contains a cross-section of different disciplines, including law, policy, administration, clinical practice and ethics. It’s been quite an adjustment to learn to move seamlessly between different areas, but I enjoy the variety.

The learning never ends

It’s taken time to assimilate a different knowledge and skills base. Whereas in my community nursing role I’m dealing with complex wounds, or advising a patient about their catheter care, in research I need to understand how trials operate on a day-to-day basis.

We see patients with a range of chronic respiratory conditions such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, COPD, pleural disorders and asthma. Each study I support gives me the opportunity to learn new skills and expand my knowledge of respiratory pathophysiology. I really enjoy this aspect of the role, as it greatly enhances my clinical practice and helps my professional development.

I still get to use my clinical skills: performing physical assessments and venepuncture every visit, taking ECGs, and administering medication. But I’m also gaining new experience. This includes learning spirometry, and centrifuging blood samples in the lab so they can be sent off for further analysis.

The nurse: participant journey

The research nurse is the first point of contact for each participant throughout the course of the trial, so presenting information in a clear and accessible format is essential.[2] I find the dynamic of the relationship differs because people volunteer to take part in the trial, which means they are helping you as much as you are helping them! They are often keen to engage with the research and ask questions, especially regarding the Investigational Medicinal Product (IMP) – the treatment being tested in the trial.

It can sometimes be a little overwhelming trying to retain enough knowledge to keep them informed. But, just like clinical practice, any gaps in knowledge are an opportunity to learn, and there is always someone to ask if I’m not sure. On average I can see one to two patients per week, and in between trials I may not have direct patient contact for several weeks. It’s an adjustment but bear in mind, not all units are the same, and roles can differ between trusts.

Starting in research nursing

If, like me you’re interested in research nursing, but you’re not sure where to start, I’d recommend the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

Any advice given and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the view of Chiesi Limited (Chiesi).  All content in this article is for informational and educational purposes only.  Although Chiesi strives to always provide accurate information, it is not responsible for and does not verify for accuracy any of the information contained within.

[1] Noclor. Site Initiation. Available at: https://www.noclor.nhs.uk/study-setup/site-initiation

[2] Nurses.co.uk. Research Nurse jobs and clinical trials. Available at: https://www.nurses.co.uk/blog/research-nurse-jobs-and-clinical-trials/

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UK-RES-2300628 April 2023