Oxford Health researchers have been shortlisted for a prestigious Health Services Journal award for work on enabling more patients to take part in vital research into mental health, an area which has until now seen fewer take this opportunity.

Oxford Health’s entry ‘Working together to bridge the gap’, has been shortlisted in the clinical impact category. The ward winner will be announced on Wednesday 23rd November at Intercontinental O2 in London.

Mental health problems account for over a quarter of all illness nationally (28%), but such services get 18% of NHS spending and mental health research gets just 5.5% of total UK health research spending.

It’s not that patients don’t want to take part in research: they do. In other specialisms, like cancer services, such participation is routine. In mental health research though, patients may be less aware of opportunities.

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Andrew Molodynski leads the project jointly with team manager Zandie Forrest. He says:

“We hope that our small scale initiative has really put patients first. Our main aim is to get to the point where individuals decide for themselves whether they take part in research or not and to ensure this is not governed by other factors, such as hardworking clinicians being understandably too busy or people not having information about what’s available.”

The Oxford Health team’s solution was a pilot to introduce ‘research assistants’ (RAs) – people whose role was half clinical, half research, to be fully part of clinical teams.

Because they were in the team and helping with patient care RAs could: increase awareness of research and of studies available to patients, as well as demonstrating that studies don’t harm and are associated with improved outcomes for patients. They were also able to help research departments become more aware and sensitive to the pressures in clinical services. Importantly, the pilot started to help patients decide for themselves whether to take part; and to allow for studies into the full range of mental health that are sensitive to services’ needs.

Additional support

As a result a large number of patients benefited from additional support and research assistants gained more clinical experience. Importantly, more patients were offered the chance to take part in valuable research – such that Oxford Health is now the highest recruiting mental health trust per head of population for studies supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

With seven research assistants in community mental health teams, supported by a manager and a consultant psychiatrist, the pilot was able to support studies into new therapies like virtual reality treatments to help manage and overcome paranoid thoughts. They’ve helped implement True Colours which offers online self-monitoring and management for patients and provides valuable insights for researching, improving and developing psychological treatments.

The pilot has run for a year and is now expanding into children’s and young people’s services and to inpatient units. Dr Molodynski says:

“Over the coming years we hope to strengthen this approach to create a true sense of joint venture between health professionals and people who use services. We want to bring about the best quality research locally to improve care for future generations, to support and improve care now, and to increase real and genuine partnership in local health care research. The initiative has been truly embraced by staff and people who use services. Oxford Health is now the highest recruiting trust for mental health studies in the country as a result.”