Dr Maria Antonietta (Etta) Nettis is a Consultant Psychiatrist at the National Psychosis Unit at King’s College London and a researcher within the Research and Development (R&D) team at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Etta writes about why research at the Trust is so important for improving patient care and her team’s facilitating role.
What is clinical research and why is it important?
In clinical research projects, people volunteer to take part in studies to help researchers understand health and diseases. Clinical research helps find new and better ways to identify, treat, and prevent diseases. For example, trialling a new medication to explore its effectiveness and safety, or studying the mechanisms behind an illness, so that it can be better understood and treated.
Clinical research in mental health is one of the biggest needs worldwide at the moment. Many of us know someone living with a mental health condition, or live with one ourselves, this might be very distressing and disabling. Many lives could be improved with better treatments for these conditions. At South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, we conduct multiple research activities for mental health, and also integrate them with regular patient care for our service users.
Who is in our R&D team?
The team is led by Professor Fiona Gaughran, Director of Research and Development, and includes several professionals with both clinical and research experience, including Carrie-Ann Black, Head of Nursing for Research and Quality, Dr Simone Ciufolini, Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Aikaterini Dima, Clinical Research Associate, Helen Kelsall, Deputy Chief Nurse, Jack Murray, Mental Health Research Nurse, and Harriet Jordan and Timea Szentgyorgyi, Research Workers. Our collaborative working ensures the co-ordination and delivery of several clinical research studies within the Trust.
What’s our role?
We conduct - and help to conduct - studies on different conditions, such as schizophrenia, depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorders and autistic spectrum disorders.
These studies aim to improve knowledge and management of mental health conditions by exploring new strategies for diagnosis and treatment (including pharmacological, psychological and other forms of treatment).
For example, we are currently setting up two studies involving people with schizophrenia. Individuals with such a diagnosis may report cognitive symptoms such as reduced attention, concentration, and memory.
We will test whether patients with schizophrenia can benefit from taking a new medication, compared to placebo, added to their current treatment in terms of their cognitive symptoms. This might be particularly relevant for those who are not fully responding to standard treatments, such as antipsychotic medications.
We also support clinical research conducted by other teams within the Trust. For instance, we support studies on disorders affecting both adolescents and the elders. One of these studies is currently testing a new medication to improve symptoms and social function associated in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Another project we are supporting is investigating early signs (symptoms, blood results) predicting cognitive decline in old individuals diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy Bodies.
Service users need to consent to take part in these research studies, attend appointments with the research team, which might involve the collection of clinical questionnaires, blood samples and other information. Participants are free to withdraw from research studies at any time. On completion of the study, the results of the research will usually be shared with them.
Finally, we also connect and link research projects conducted in other locations or by other Trusts to our organisation. Take for example a research group conducting a study in a University or Hospital in Sheffield, that would like to widen their research sample and include patients from London. Our team will identify the researchers with the expertise and interest to collaborate with such projects and offer it to local service users.
How research fits into patient care
Our NHS patients can take part in research alongside their treatment.
For instance, a person with schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, or dementia, who is treated in hospital or the community, might be offered the chance to take part in studies, such as those mentioned above. To this purpose, every ward or mental health team has an allocated Research Champion, a professional with the role of connecting service users to the right research team according to individual needs.
This is all underpinned by a commitment to equality and diversity. We aim to ensure equal opportunities for research participation. In addition, a key goal is that our participants and research workforce reflect the local population we serve.
We are always thinking of new research opportunities and how to make them more inclusive.
Overall, our "search for any lost-chances for better-treatment" aims to create a network of research opportunities to improve the quality of life of all our service users. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has affected and interfered with some research studies, many have been able to move online, to ensure accessibility in different forms. Now, with our team expanding and new projects on the way, we hope to increase our efforts towards better care for all those living with mental health conditions.
We welcome all interested clinicians and service users , and their families, to contact us for information and collaboration ideas.
For more information, please contact Carrie-Ann Black, Head of Nursing for Research and Quality at Carrie-Ann.Black@slam.nhs.uk.