Career advice

Research should be part of nurses’ daily work

Trust creates new post of clinical professor to help nurses develop research skills

Trust creates new post of clinical professor to help nurses develop research skills

Picture: iStock

Research should be a key component of day-to-day nursing, says Fiona Nolan, whose career combines clinical and academic work.

‘Undertaking research is an area that we don’t develop during our clinical careers – and that’s to the huge detriment of ourselves and our profession,’ argues Professor Nolan, who has been appointed to a new post of clinical professor in nursing at London's Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, which provides a range of mental health services and psychological therapies.

‘It’s a new development and an exciting one,’ says Professor Nolan. Working for a day or so each week, she will be producing a research strategy alongside a clinical academic career pathway, linking with other trusts in north London.

She will help the trust’s small cohort of nurses, who practice in highly specialised areas, to develop their skills and expertise in research.

Progress as a profession

In contrast to other healthcare professions, nurses are largely unprepared to tackle research, she believes. ‘Our medical colleagues have a good grounding in research, with plenty of opportunities to engage with it in their practice, and it’s expected of them,’ says Professor Nolan, who trained as mental health nurse.

‘But it’s not so with nurses – and I hope that changes, because we can’t progress as a profession without this key element. We need core research skills in our basic clinical toolkit from the get-go. When we graduate that’s just the start, and it should be developed.’

While some may argue this is unfeasible given the day-to-day pressures facing many who work for the NHS, Professor Nolan believes a new emphasis on research could alleviate some of the difficulties. ‘I think it could be a way to redress a lot of the problems, including recruitment and retention issues,’ she says.

Clinical academic careers

Fiona Nolan: ‘We can’t progress as
a profession without this.’

Creating many more clinical academic jobs would help too, says Professor Nolan, who is also clinical professor of mental health nursing at the University of Essex and one of eight Florence Nightingale Foundation chairs of nursing in the UK – the only one in mental health.

‘My own career path is highly unusual,’ she says. ‘I’ve tried to maintain a clinical career throughout, marrying it with academic work, and I’ve been lucky to have the support I needed. But without that vision, clinical academic careers won’t progress in this country.’

Nurses shouldn’t have to decide between one path or the other, says Professor Nolan. ‘It’s led to nurses moving into academic jobs who become out of touch because they lack contact with the NHS and patients,’ she says.

‘You wouldn’t have a professor of surgery who hadn’t seen a patient for years – they wouldn’t be respected or have clinical credibility. But nurses have been forced to make that choice. It’s wrong, and it shouldn’t continue.’

Ability to lead studies

While many more nurses are engaged in research projects now, often the projects are generated and led by other professional groups. ‘I’d like to see nurses leading research much more,’ says Professor Nolan, who believes the field of mental health provides the ideal opportunity.

‘As a nurse, you can’t lead research on a new cancer drug or surgical intervention, but mental health is a much more level playing field, where we have the ability to lead studies.’

The nursing profession can make a unique contribution too, she believes. ‘We have more contact with patients and we’re privileged in our level of insight into what patients need and their concerns. We have information that other professionals don’t have or have to a lesser degree, but it’s not exploited because we’re not leading research to the extent we should be.’

Lynne Pearce is a freelance health journalist 

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