The valuable contribution of clinical research nurses

A look at the aspirations of a newly launched programme by Cancer Research UK to support the professional development of clinical research nurses who work on cancer trials

Cancer Research UK’s Jodie Fenn looks at the aspirations of the charity's newly launched programme to support the professional development of clinical research nurses who work on cancer trials

Research nurse
The day saw research nurses sharing their ideas to help shape the future of the programme

With the fast-paced development of new cancer treatments and the increasingly complex nature of clinical trials, there is a greater need for clinical research nurses (CRNs) to keep updated with the latest research and stay well connected with peers to encourage the sharing of best practice.  

While clinical research nursing is hugely rewarding, CRNs report having limited cancer-specific training opportunities and a lack of networking opportunities with their peers. CRNs are central to the delivery of vital clinical research, pioneering treatments and high-quality patient care, but this is often poorly understood.

The charity's lead research nurse Anne Croudass explains: ‘Research nurses are a fantastic and valuable workforce whose work, sadly, isn’t always recognised.’

Online course

In response, the charity has developed an online course called Demystifying Targeted Cancer Treatments, as well as hosting study days and a round table event on improving collaboration between CRNs and nurse specialists.

Last month, Cancer Research UK also launched its Excellence in Research programme specifically to support CRNs working on cancer trials.

The programme is designed to facilitate and signpost CRNs to further education, professional development and peer-to-peer networking opportunities. Early plans include an online information hub and further education resources. Clinical research nurses who sign up can also expect to receive regular communications on relevant news, information and updates on the programme, plus education materials, practical tools and resources for patients.

Shaping the future

The official launch event – attended by more than 80 CRNs working on cancer trials across the UK – encouraged research nurses to feed into these plans, curate ideas and help inform and shape future activity.

The programme complements the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) clinical research nursing strategy, which was launched last year and includes a focus on developing research nurse leaders.

NIHR's director of nursing, learning and organisational development Susan Hamer says the work being done by her organisation and Cancer Research UK is crucial to providing CRNs with new opportunities for professional development, ensuring they can learn new skills and ‘as fast as the science we can present’.

The workshops allowed research
nurses to meet and network with
their peers

Education and development

She gave a motivational call-to-arms, inspiring CRNs to take an active role in their education and development, and advocate to improve collaboration and raise their profile.  

‘We have a commitment to ensure people understand what CRNs do,’ she says. ‘Clinical research nursing is facing a really exciting time. In recent years, the CRN workforce has rapidly grown in numbers, and they need the opportunity to develop their skills. I am very optimistic about the future of clinical research nursing.’

Speaking to delegates, Francis Crick Institute Cancer Research Network director Peter Johnson highlighted that research into new treatments is getting ever more complex. ‘We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity; the translation of our increased biological understanding into what we do in the clinic is going to get faster and faster,’ he says.

Fast facts

  • Research has contributed to boosting survival rates: 50% of people diagnosed with cancer today will survive their disease for at least ten years, compared to just a quarter in the early 1970s
  • CRNs translate research into delivering pioneering new treatments and improving patient outcomes 
  • 100% of 77 CRNs say they would recommend the programme launch event to a colleague
  • 92% of 77 CRNs surveyed feel inspired about their future as a clinical research nurse

'Support and kindness'

Peter Breaden, a pancreatic cancer patient who was on the ESPAC-4 clinical trial and received a combination treatment of gemcitabine and capecitabine, stressed the importance of the care he received from his CRN.  

Speaking at the launch event, he said: ‘Pembe gave me and my wife tremendous support and kindness during my illness; I think this a very important part of the CRN’s role in cancer trials. Pembe monitored and documented my progress during the trial. This involved asking questions about all aspects of my health and well-being. She also had to ensure protocol was adhered to and all appropriate data recorded.’

The day involved a lively panel discussion on the ethical and practical scenarios that research nurses face daily, and the challenging judgment calls they make in their patients’ best interests. For instance, they must communicate intricate, complex information to patients, offsetting their hope with the reality that the treatment may not be effective, or they may not prove eligible.

Workforce demands

The demands on today’s workforce were debated, including balancing patient advocacy with pressures of time and targets to recruit.

Ms Croudass told delegates that the charity's focus on supporting the professional development of CRNs would be ‘a long-term plan of activity, with research nurses at the heart’. The event gave CRNs a chance to voice the support they feel they need to develop and progress in their careers.

Elaine Vickers, a cancer education specialist and workshop facilitator, says it is ‘exciting’ to see CRNs getting the recognition and support they deserve from Cancer Research UK, adding: ‘I’ve been educating research nurses for many years. I know how brilliant they are, how much they want to learn and feel supported and recognised.’

Cancer Research UK is reviewing all ideas shared during the event and embedding these themes into the programme. For any questions or to sign up, email researchprogramme@cancer.org.uk

You can sign up to the programme by visiting: Excellence in Research Programme

Kelly Gleason is Cancer Research UK senior research nurse at Imperial College, London

How would you describe your role as a research nurse?

We balance caring for patients with caring for a study, ensuring we follow protocol and collect robust data. It involves building strong relationships with various stakeholders, maintaining good communication across a large, diverse team, and never losing sight of the most important part of research, the patient.

What is most satisfying about being a clinical research nurse?

The relationships you build with patients and the contribution you make to treatment development for people diagnosed with cancer. It feels good to work in these autonomous roles, develop your professional skills, and make a valuable contribution to improving the care of tomorrow.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in research nursing?

Take time to build a strong foundation of knowledge. Regulations and legislation governing clinical research are important to ensuring its integrity. Once you learn these fundamentals, there are many opportunities to branch out and build on communication, project management, negotiating and influencing.

How do you see the future of clinical research nursing?

It has evolved so much over the last decade but, more than ever, we are being asked to work smarter. Cancer clinical trial design is becoming more complex due to better understanding of what drives individual cancers. 
Nurses must keep up with scientific advances quickly, leading to different ways of testing new treatments. We must be able to translate the science and complex trials to patients and support them in making the right care decisions. Research nursing provides endless personal and professional development opportunities. If you like to learn and be challenged, then maybe research nursing is for you.


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