Dr Smeeta Sinha

Leaders have key role to play in encouraging research

Dr Smeeta Sinha is a Consultant Nephrologist at Salford Royal. After a successful tenure as the trust’s clinical director for renal services, she recently stepped aside in order to dedicate more time to her research. As part of the NIHR’s #YourPathInResearch campaign, Smeeta blogs about the importance of allowing consultants time and space to do research.

As someone who has worked as a clinical director for five-and-a-half years, I’ve been fortunate to play an important enabling role. The roles of directors, or hospital managers in general, are integral to fostering a culture of research within a directorate. It’s about providing leadership that values research and enables other people in the department to pursue research by creating the time and space for them. That’s something I’ve been proud to do.

Looking back at my own path in research, I’m not a scientist by background. I went to a traditional medical school and, as a registrar, took some time out of the specialist training programme to do some research. I wanted to have a broad base of research and so decided to do a lab-based research PhD at the University of Manchester. I took three years out to go and work in a laboratory doing basic science, finished my PhD and went straight into a consultant job.

As a young consultant, I would support clinics trials within the hospital. I was fortunate that our renal department is very collaborative and so we would – and continue to – support each other’s studies and help recruit patients, both in terms of academic studies and commercial trials which enabled us to grow our research infrastructure.

Since then, I gradually became more proactive and developed my research interests in chronic kidney disease-mineral bone disorder, in particular vascular calcification. I’m now the Principal Investigator for the UK Calciphylaxis Study – a multi-centre, observational study that we’ve been able to deliver in 34 UK renal units, with the support of the Clinical Research Network. I’m now also the Chief Investigator for a multi-centre international clinical trial related to my lab-based research.

I took over as clinical director for renal services in 2014. At that point, even though our approach was very pro-research, we didn’t have a formal approach in the directorate. We now have a dedicated Research and Innovation lead within the directorate as well as hybrid clinical and research registrars and nurses.

As clinical director, I was keen to support clinicians incorporating research sessions as part of their job plan; the trust is also supporting clinicians with job planned research sessions on an annual basis. This gives staff the thinking space to take the research that they might have done earlier in their career and drive it forward. It might sometimes only be an hour a week but it establishes a culture and it means you attract people who have got academic and research interests.

I have appointed 10 consultants since I started and all have had MDs or PhDs, so that increases the number of people who are able to deliver research. As our research department has grown we’ve become one of the highest recruiters in the country. This brings benefits to the research programme, but it also attracts other researchers and attracts more funding so the programme can grow. We have our own MD and PhD students and they build their research moving forward, so it’s not wholly dependent on, say, one consultant on one hour a day, and that creates sustainability for the department.

You hear of shortages of doctors in the NHS, but we have never had a challenge with a medical vacancy. I believe that’s driven by our research reputation and the fact that health professionals know they have an environment here where they can continue to do what they have done for their MDs and PhDs.

Working in research is very satisfying because you get to provide patients with opportunity and it adds variety to your role. And because our research is quite high profile, it means you also build connections with international experts in the field. This can help if you’ve got a complex patient and need advice, as you’ve got ready access to experts through existing relationships and networks in addition to the wealth of talent you’re surrounded by in the trust already. It’s good to get different viewpoints.

To anyone thinking of research, my advice would be to just try a little bit to begin with. Have a look at which trials are out there and what research is out there. Just explore it, because you will have patients who you don’t have a treatment for.