Daniel Allen hears how Kirsten Guy is encouraging allied health professionals to dip their toe into research
Kirsten Guy hesitates slightly when asked if she sees herself as a leader. ‘Yes,’ she says after a moment. ‘I can say that now.’
By any objective measure she is a front-runner. As allied health professionals (AHPs) research lead for Lincolnshire, she is on a mission to engage colleagues in research in a bid to drive improvements to patient care.
It’s not always been easy. There’s a confidence issue among frontline physios and other AHPs that leaves some a little uneasy about research, she suggests. It’s an area often perceived as someone else’s turf; best left to the experts.
But by drawing on the skills she developed in clinical practice, Kirsten is steadily bringing people on board. She is, in short, leading the way.
Kirsten joined the profession via a sports and science exercise degree before studying physiotherapy at Coventry University. Junior rotations followed before she moved to Lincolnshire, near to where she grew up, and specialist roles in stroke and neuro-rehabilitation at Grantham Hospital, part of United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
She took up a lecturing role on a practice-based learning course run by Sheffield Hallam University, an intensive programme that enabled physio and OT assistants to become qualified therapists in two years. She then moved to Lincolnshire’s community stroke service.
Kirsten describes each career move with infectious enthusiasm – of her substantive post with the stroke service, for example, she says: ‘I absolutely love it.’
But she was at a crossroads. What should she do next? More lecturing? Or perhaps another specialism.
‘So, I had some development coaching and through that re-found my love for research,’ she says.
With the support of her managers and Lincolnshire Community Health Services’ (LCHS) research department, and with funding from East Midlands Clinical Research Network (CRN), she was given half a day a week of protected time which she used to explore options for research in the stroke service. Within six months that half day had become a full day.
And having completed training with the National Institute for Health and Care Research, she joined an acute physio colleague in delivering RECREATE – a large, multi-centre randomised controlled trial in the Lincolnshire stroke service, with Kirsten acting as principal investigator.
Breaking down barriers
Last October, she was recruited to a full-time six-month secondment – since extended to a year – to encourage interest and participation in research among AHPs.
Through Lincolnshire AHP Council, where she leads a research and innovation network, Kirsten can reach out to staff in settings across health and social care services.
So how does she go about urging colleagues to consider the value of a research project?
A first step was to gauge interest via a survey.
‘That told us there was an appetite for research within Lincolnshire but people didn’t know how to get started.’
Respondents were asked what would help them become more involved in research.
‘People needed designated time to step away from their job. They wanted a research mentor to guide them as they didn’t feel they had the expertise to know the best way to go about things. And they wanted training and resources.’
Kirsten sought practical solutions, one of which was to secure funding from the CRN.
‘They were very generous,’ she says. ‘They gave us over £20,000 to provide backfill for people to step away for a day a week for six months to complete, or at least start, a research project in their area.’
She adds: ‘We were blown away by the number and quality of applications. People really wanted to get involved but just needed the time.’ Among the applicants was a first contact physio working on a digital solution designed to improve the triaging of patients into the service.
Building close links with the University of Lincolnshire has been integral to the success of Kirsten’s role. The university has awarded her the title of visiting fellow and she has two mentors there.
Listening to AHPs needs
Professor Kate Grafton is head of the School of Health and Social Care and responsible for AHP education. A physio by background, she’s also vice chair of the council for AHP research strategy group. And Professor Ros Kane is director of research within the Health and Social Care School.
‘Having them as mentors has been hugely influential in bringing the university and clinical AHPs together,’ says Kirsten. ‘The university has huge ambitions for research and having access to their resources has been really helpful.’
Because this is a new role – the vision of LCHS deputy director of AHPs and clinical transformation Angela Shimada – Kirsten says that to some extent she is learning as she goes. But much of it is simply about communication.
You ask people what they need and want, and my job is to try to make it happen.
The AHP research strategy for England and the Lincolnshire AHP research strategy provide the framework for the vision, while the grassroots are the foundations for changing research culture.
‘And although we’ve got a very novice research culture within Lincolnshire, I’m really keen to give everybody the opportunity so that we can all grow together.’
But how does she tackle that lack of confidence AHPs feel regarding their abilities as researchers?
‘You say “research” and some automatically switch off because they’re thinking about huge million-pound trials. But what I say to them is, “This is about your registration. This is about evidence-based practice. If you’re providing a service, it needs to be evaluated”. Then you build on that.’
Networking and communication
Getting managers on board has been crucial, she adds. In other areas, research is seen as an add-on and not a priority, so staff are not released.
But for Kirsten, people at operations level, clinical team leads and directors have all been ‘really, really supportive’.
‘We’re very lucky in that we’ve got a number of people who can see the bigger vision. They can see the relevance of research and that there’s a benefit to it, as opposed to it being about taking people away from the frontline. This is about us providing the best for our patients and our staff.’
‘Ultimately, I’m really keen that AHPs don’t feel alone when engaging in research and that we grow our research culture together. I’m just trying to sow the seed.’
Despite her success in advancing the research agenda, Kirsten still admits to imposter syndrome. She overcomes it by reframing what she does as simply having conversations, whether that’s with an AHP working in mental health or with the medical director of the local integrated care board.
‘Networking doesn’t come easily to some people but ultimately I think it’s where the impact can be made.’
So, yes, she’s a leader – and perhaps always has been.
‘I would hope I was a really good role model for other people in the stroke service. I took huge pride in my work, always trying to be the best physio I could be. And now I have that as a mantra: I try to be the best “me” I can be. And I apply that to whatever I’m doing.’
Making the AHP voice heard
Catherine Chappell, CSP campaigns and regional engagement officer, says: ‘It’s inspiring to see how Kirsten is profiling the profession and making a difference for colleagues and patients locally.
‘She is ensuring the AHP voice is at the local decision-making table, with research providing an avenue to drive home messages to those at the top of the local healthcare system, so they are understood and invested in. Her somewhat unique role ensures the best outcomes for patients by encouraging AHPs to dip their toe into research, and with the support of AHP leaders in Lincolnshire it’s a team effort to be proud of.’
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