Professor Peter Clayton – Aligning Greater Manchester’s clinical, research and academic strengths during COVID-19

Translating rapid research discoveries into frontline clinical practice can often take years.

But in the middle of a pandemic, it is crucial to accelerate this process to minimise lives lost and reduce the impact on Greater Manchester’s health and social care system and the wider community.

In this blog, Professor Peter Clayton, Chief Academic Officer at Health Innovation Manchester and MAHSC Clinical Director, explains how having an organisation already tasked with accelerating innovation into Greater Manchester’s healthcare system provided the structures and relationships to create a rapid response to COVID-19

A vital part of the COVID-19 response in the first six months has been aligning Greater Manchester’s clinical, research and academic strengths – getting all the nuts and bolts together to make the engine work. COVID-19 gave us a clear goal to align behind but we needed the structures and governance to work together, avoid duplication of efforts and maximise our resources.

One of the key ways that we’ve done this is through the creation of the GM Research Rapid Response group which brought together clinicians, scientists, researchers and professional services staff to work together on the response to COVID-19. Behind the scenes we created a structure which allowed us to bring everyone together, review research applications quickly, make decisions rapidly and deliver research. We created a way for information to be exchanged across the nine priority areas, the group processing research applications and the executive group so that we had oversight of strategic issues, what was happening in the GM landscape and what was happening nationally. We could connect researchers and academics who were keen to work on similar COVID-19 research and encourage collaboration, for example those working on surfaces and materials or research led by the Faculties of Science & Engineering and Humanities. It meant we were able to evaluate over 180 applications within a few months and support GM institutions to secure over £4.5million in COVID awards from UKRI, relating to the disease and the impact of the pandemic on society.

It was a phenomenal and selfless effort by all involved but ultimately was unsustainable for a long period of time. However, the pandemic has shown us that if you bring all the different parts of our research systems (in the Universities and the NHS) together in one place and have the processes in place, you can make decisions and deliver research projects effectively and rapidly.

This partnership approach extended outside of the research efforts and into supporting efforts to create or donate PPE for frontline workers. We brought together the GM Universities, including the Faculties of Science & Engineering and Humanities in University of Manchester, to work collaboratively with our partner Trusts to ensure that the donations were getting to the right places with the right approvals in place to make a difference.

The pandemic also required a system to mobilise the clinical academics who wanted to return to frontline work caring for patients. We needed to capture who was doing what and where they were, as well as have a plan for them to return to their business as usual in the summer after the peak. We also supported our Faculties who were looking to graduate students in medicine, nursing and other healthcare courses early so they could start work in healthcare settings to support front-line care workers.

All of this agile work behind the scenes, organising, bringing the right people into conversations and having structures in place allowed us to rapidly support research efforts and to mobilise a clinical workforce on the frontline – be they staff or students. We were able to do this at such a pace because of the relationships and partnerships already developed through Health Innovation Manchester and the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre (MAHSC).

Working as an AHSC since 2009, we have partnerships between the GM Universities and NHS organisations to work together to undertake world-leading research to tackle diseases, develop new treatments and transform patient care. We had strengthened those relationships recently as we worked together to be re-designated as an AHSC. We heard the news of our re-designation, by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), NHS England and NHS Improvement until 2025, at the end of March as we completed the first week of the first lockdown. Building on those relationships, continuing to develop them and knowing what could be achieved when we worked together helped us rapidly mobilise our response to the pandemic.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of organisations such as Health Innovation Manchester, working across the healthcare system from academia to wards and general practices with a defined purpose and aim of discovering, developing and deploying innovations into practice. HInM wasn’t created to be able to respond to a pandemic, but when an urgent global health problem arrived, having an organisation that could pivot and work across the research and innovation space has made a big difference. It has reinforced the importance of having a health innovation driver within the city, that brings health services together with the research power of our Universities.

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