Our Stories

My research journey: from ideas to impact.

Christopher Horler, Physiotherapist in our Crawley and Horsham team, discusses his research journey so far and what he has learnt along the way

How did your research journey start?

My research journey began late 2016 with a research internship at the University of Brighton. It was my first step into the Integrated Clinical Academic Programme (ICAP) funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and Health Education England.  The idea of the ICAP is to develop clinical academic research leaders. Therefore, the programme aims to bridge the gap between academia and clinical practice to facilitate applied clinical research which improves patient care.  The internship gave me the opportunity to develop my knowledge and skills in conducting clinical research and the platform to plan a research project.  I completed two master’s level modules and worked closely with University supervisors to develop a research proposal.

Following the internship, I progressed through the ICAP to the master’s in clinical research programme where I consolidated my knowledge and skills in conducting clinical research and worked closely with my academic and clinical supervisors to carry out the research.  I conducted a qualitative study which investigated how physiotherapists decided to use education (e.g advice or written information) with people who have persistent low back pain. I conducted interviews with a small sample of UK-based physiotherapists to help me understand their views and experiences and this enabled me to construct a theoretical model to explain their decision-making processes.

Following the master’s, I was fortunate enough to apply and secure further NIHR funding to bridge the master’s and a PhD.  The funding enabled me to take some time out of work to write a research article based on my masters research project. The article was submitted to an international journal where it went through a process of peer review and re-drafting before being published in May this year.   Other outputs from the master’s programme included a poster presentation at the Physiotherapy UK 2019 conference and a podcast about patient education. I am now aiming to develop a research proposal for the ICAP Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship.

What did you gain from your research?

My ambition was to be involved in clinical research but I didn’t know where to start. Through the ICAP I have learnt a lot about how we engage in research. My confidence and competence in appraising and conducting clinical research has grown significantly.  More specifically, I have learnt a lot about research ethics, governance, methodologies, philosophy and different research methods such as interviews or focus groups. From a practical point of view, I learnt about working with supervisors, academic writing, literature searching and critical appraisal of research publications. In relation to my study, I gained wonderful insight into the world of other physiotherapists. I was fortunate to be able to listen to their in-depth stories, views and experiences of clinical practice. I had the time and space to analyse the information from the interviews and compare this to other research findings in order to construct a new conceptual model.

What were some of the things you found helpful?

Lots of chocolate and coffee!

The most important thing was the incredible support from my wife Georgina.  After that it was about introducing structure to each day and across the year.  I did the master’s full time over one year and there wasn’t much structure to the course. I knew I had a few modules and a dissertation to complete.  I only needed to visit the University for a couple of weeks out of the whole year and most of my time was spent at home at the computer.

I structured my time to have specific working periods where I set a start and finish time to help prevent me working late into the evening.  Setting short, medium and long term goals was helpful.  I knew I was trying to produce a dissertation so I had to break that down to give me some smaller targets.  Most importantly, setting smaller realistic goals for each day helped me feel productive and satisfied.  Otherwise it was quite easy to get to the end of the day and feel that I haven’t achieved anything because I hadn’t started writing, even though I had read and critiqued several articles. I certainly didn’t get this right all of the time, but I definitely found goal setting useful.

Having good clinical and academic supervisors was really important for me. The regular supervision gave me direction and targets.  Writing up the supervision sessions was useful because it helped me to construct an action plan. I could then work on the action points before our next meeting.  I also found peer support was really important. I was fortunate to have a great cohort of peers on the master’s programme and we supported each other greatly throughout the course and beyond.

More broadly, I found exercising and eating well were really important. This was a challenge! It was too easy to sit for hours at the computer munching on snacks! I found going for a jog helped me to think clearer and reflect on my research. I found some of my best ideas came to me while away from the computer. 

What advice would you give to others interested in this journey?

I would encourage them to make contact with different individuals, organisations and support networks that will be able to support their research goals (links to a range of useful resources are included at the end of the blog).  For example, getting in contact with their local Council for Allied Professions Research (CAHPR) would be a great start.  I would also advise them to speak to people in their organisation’s research department who can support them with their research projects. I would encourage them to join research interest groups in their organisation to meet people who are engaged in research and to discuss and share their ideas with peers. I would also signpost them to different training opportunities like the ICAP.

Any last reflections?

The ICAP programme has opened up other opportunities for me.  I have recently started as an Allied Health Professions Research Champion across Kent, Surrey and Sussex.  It is an initiative run by NIHR and CAHPR.  It is a voluntary position and my employer enables me to use up to one day a month for the role. In the role I work with a range of other people and organisations to promote and facilitate research across the region.  

I have been able to share my learning with my colleagues and I aim to support them with their own research journeys.  Ultimately, the goal is to embed evidence based practice so that we can improve the quality of patient care. I have worked in collaboration with my colleagues to develop a research interest group within our organisation. This group aims to develop a shared vision and values related to research and a strategy to improve engagement with clinical research and audit.   

I would also like to show my appreciation for the amazing support of my family, my employer and the University of Brighton throughout the ICAP. The Sussex MSK Partnership has supported me tremendously. They have enabled me to take time out of clinical work to study.   I would particularly like to thank Laura Finucane who has been my clinical mentor throughout the ICAP.

Hopefully sharing my journey may help someone with their own clinical research goals.

If you are interested in Chris’s story and would like to find out more, you can find some useful links below or contact Chris via the research champion webpage.

Integrated Clinical Academic Programme (ICAP)

Council for Allied Health Professions Research (CAHPR)

National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)

CAHPR hubs

CAHPR/NIHR research champions

NIHR Research Design Service

NIHR Training Advocates

NIHR Clinical Research Networks

Click here to read Chris’ paper

Click here to see Chris’ presentation in the physiotherapy journal

Click here to listen to the patient podcast mentioned above

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