A long time ago I left college aged sixteen with five dodgy O levels. My parents tore their hair out, I dug my heels in, took a job as a cleaner in the college where I’d studied and harboured a secret but deep worry about what to do next. Fast forward a year, and I was working as a bottle-washer in a research lab at London University vet school, capitalising on my better O level (biology).
And what a turning point. I suddenly found myself enmeshed with folk utterly passionate about their subjects. In their wisdom, they gently nudged me back into study and the reason they succeeded was because the learning was linked to the job in hand. It felt right because it felt relevant.
I was reminded of this recently, talking to a friend about the national shortage of engineers and his organisation’s work to broker relationships between employers and schools. Teachers spend two weeks in a place that does engineering, returning to the classroom well-equipped to tell students what work is really like and helping them to get there.
And so it set me thinking. On one hand we’ve got a growing patient involvement industry, England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies, saying “I have always taken the view that public involvement in research should be the rule not the exception” and on the other, some researchers are still reluctant to move from the safe confines of their lab or desk to the messier world of patients.
It seems obvious that really good teaching can be enhanced by real-world experience. Similarly, there is good reason to believe that medical research can be transformed into really good medical research by being carried out in true partnership with patients and the experience they bring.
I’ve written before about the importance of research being informed by patient experience and I know from my first days as a PhD student that meeting people with motor neurone disease dramatically altered my view of why my imminent three years fiddling about with test tubes mattered.
There’s talk about mandatory training in patient involvement for researchers. We certainly need to get better at helping them feel confident to involve patients, but I’m going to allow myself a little longer to believe this will become part of the vocation of researchers because they want it to be rather than because they are forced to do it.
If you want to share your views with Sophie email: Sophie.Petit-Zeman@ouh.nhs.uk