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Rising to the challenge - Associate Directors of Nursing reflect on research nurses’ response to COVID-19

Published: 07 April 2021

Dr Sharon Barrett, Dr Catherine Henshall and Jennifer Allison, the NIHR Clinical Research Network’s Associate Directors of Nursing, reflect on how they have adapted to the challenges of the past year and how research nurses have responded to the global pandemic.

Shifting Priorities

Work has been extraordinary for us all over the past year. When COVID-19 first emerged, nobody was prepared for the extraordinary impact it would have on nurses and the clinical research workforce. There are so many new and emerging challenges and we have all had to adapt to new ways of working within this shifting research landscape.

Towards the end of April 2020, there were indications that the pressures on the UK health system were easing in respect of COVID-19, and therefore that paused and new NIHR research might gradually resume. Sharon was asked to assist colleagues with the complex CRN Restart programme supporting the recommencement of paused studies in England.

As well as her Associate Director of Nursing role, Jennifer is Matron in the NIHR Southampton CRF where she and colleagues have been running all phases of the vaccine study portfolio since April 2020 as well as supporting all COVID-19 urgent public health (UPH) studies.

Catherine, in her role as Head of Research Delivery for Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust has been involved in leading the delivery of the Novavax vaccine trial in Oxford. She has also contributed to the design of valuable COVID-19 nursing research studies. These include a UKRI funded study 'Cov-Ed' - exploring student nurses experiences during the pandemic, and a Burdett Trust for Nursing study to develop an online intervention to enhance nurses resilience throughout the pandemic.

Balancing the shifting priorities and challenges the pandemic has created has required a huge team effort and a really flexible, adaptable and resilient workforce. At the forefront of it all has been concern for the wellbeing of our colleagues. We must be aware that we are not done yet. We still have a long way to travel through this pandemic and a focus on looking after each other and guarding against burnout is really important.

Rising to the challenge

For so many clinical research nurses and midwives, UPH studies, vaccines and non-COVID studies have been their priority over the past year. We have seen a transformational approach to setting up studies, recruiting and following up with patients during this time - and we pay tribute to all of these teams.

We are delighted that the 70@70 Senior Nurse and Midwife Leader Programme continued to excel throughout the pandemic, despite the fact that so many of our cohort members were redeployed back to frontline nursing care. They, along with our entire research nursing workforce, have faced unprecedented pressures over the past year due to COVID-19. Despite the challenges, they have demonstrated sheer professionalism, extensive leadership qualities and have driven forward numerous initiatives and innovations aimed at increasing nurses’ engagement in research at a local, regional and national level.

The future of research nursing

The events of the past year have shone a spotlight on the amazing work that nurses do on a daily basis. But also on the incredible research that is being undertaken across the globe and its impact on health and social care.

The profile of clinical research and research nurses has never been higher and we are keen to continue to build on this momentum. Our hope for the future is that more opportunities are available for nurses to become actively involved in research. This can be at any level, whether leading the design, development or delivery of research studies, identifying areas of nursing that require more research to be undertaken, signposting others to research opportunities - or utilising the evidence base to inform clinical practice and patient care.

Dr Sharon Barrett, Dr Catherine Henshall and Jennifer Allison, the NIHR Clinical Research Network’s Associate Directors of Nursing

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