Published: 31 January 2021

By Rohan Bundell, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, AMRC

It’s widely understood that research in clinical settings brings a range of significant benefits. Patients treated in research-active hospitals see improved outcomes, lower mortality rates and increased confidence in the care being delivered, with NHS organisations seeing improved Care Quality Commission ratings. NHS staff who conduct research are more satisfied, aiding retention and recruitment. Hospital trusts can increase the efficiency of services, as well as receive income and make cost savings from research that can be reinvested into other areas of care. In addition, the economic benefits research brings filters into the broader economy. 

Research is an essential part of healthcare 

Clinical research helps diagnose diseases earlier and more accurately. It provides life-changing treatments and can prevent people from developing a condition in the first place. Taking part in clinical studies and trials can provide a lifeline for those patients who’ve not responded to existing treatments. The chance to test novel drugs and therapies brings hope, whether that’s managing a condition and having breathing space to enjoy time with loved ones, or whether it’s a chance to live their life free from a condition altogether. By improving the health and care of the public, research ensures everyone has a better quality of life, right now and for generations to come. Put simply, research isn’t an add on – it’s an essential part of offering UK patients the best possible healthcare.  

However, to date research hasn't always been embedded in the NHS and there are varying levels of research at individual sites.  For example only 50% of GP practices recruited participants to NIHR CRN supported studies in 2020-21.  There are significant disparities in opportunities for patients to engage in research across different geographic locations, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic groups, and disease areas. Unequal distribution of research opportunities across the country is holding back our ability to address health inequalities. Because clinical research isn’t mandatory, in some cases it is regarded as an optional extra, rather than a key part of routine patient care. We must ensure that the ongoing provision of clinical research across all disease areas remains a priority and that there are the staff and resources in place to deliver this ambition alongside other critical health and care duties. 

The Health and Care Bill presents a unique opportunity  

In July last year, Government published the Health and Care Bill proposing changes to NHS rules and structures in England. The Bill is now passing through Parliament for potential improvements to be made before it becomes law in April.  

Though mostly concerned with a restructuring of the NHS into what’ll be called Integrated Care Systems, the Bill does mention research. The problem, however, is that it replicates the same old – and inadequate – wording from the last piece of major legislation, the Health and Social Care Act 2012. The last ten years has not seen a transformation in research activity. The new Bill’s clause on the ‘duty to promote research’ will, yet again, simply not be good enough to properly embed research in the NHS or the new NHS Integrated Care System structures as they become legal entities. 

Calling for amendments to the Bill 

Realising this situation could be a missed opportunity, we endeavoured to take action before the Bill becomes law.  Luckily for us, a group of 14 other organisations from across the life sciences sector felt the same way, so over the last few months we’ve teamed up to create a briefing on the ins and outs of why the Bill should strengthen the mandate for research in the NHS. Before Christmas, we sent the briefing to MPs to gather support and, now the Bill is passing through the House of Lords, we’ve been briefing Peers on why this unique opportunity must be taken. Last week, Baroness Blackwood, Lord Sharkey and other noble Peers argued passionately for amendments to the Bill around research in the NHS. The Government’s Minister for Innovation, Lord Kamall, paid tribute to their arguments and has now agreed to take forward discussions on research before the Bill proceeds further.  

It’s one small step forward, but one that looks hopeful. We’ll continue alongside our life sciences sector partners to support Peers in the fight to embed research in the NHS. For the sake of patients across the country, let’s get this over the line.