UWE Researchers’ ‘Real Time’ Response to Covid-19

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Guest blog: Ben Mitchell, Research Impact Team

As a result of their expertise in Public Health, Emergency Medical Care, Knowledge Mobilisation, Maths and Computer Modelling, and other such related areas, a number of UWE researchers have been approached or volunteered in assisting with the country’s efforts to tackle Covid-19. A selection of these researchers can be found below. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

UWE Researchers and the Clinical Commissioning Groups

As part of UWE’s response to Covid-19, researchers from UWE have been working with the local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) to provide evidence to support rapid decision making. The CCG are the people charged with making healthcare decisions locally and they are currently grappling with things such as: what do we need to do? where do we need to pool our resources? what types of treatment are needed? how do we need to respond? The local CCG includes healthcare providers in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

Professor Nicki Walsh

Within the local CCG ‘cells’ have been established, acting as working groups purely in response to the impact that Covid-19 is having on current healthcare. Many issues have come up including: home monitoring of symptoms, impact on mental health and impact of healthcare workers’ absenteeism. These issues have come up as people look to manage problems most effectively and efficiently. The Research and Evidence Team at the CCG, along with Professor Nicki Walsh who works across UWE, the CCG and the Applied Research Collaborative (ARC-West) are working with the local commissioners to manage these requests. These important questions are then fed to the Applied Research Collaborative West team, who co-ordinate researchers from UWE and the University of Bristol, creating a rapid response team to retrieve and synthesise evidence, or provide other advice to support evaluation, healthcare modelling, statistics and economics.

The emphasis of this approach is the rapid turnaround system. Most requests are processed within 48 hours from the point of the CCG submitting a question, to the academic providing that support and reporting back to the CCG. Nicki is the overall co-ordinator at UWE for all this because of her work across the different partner organisations.

In place, there is now a good pool of UWE and UoB researchers ready to respond to calls for assistance as and when they come in. Nicki says the response from academics has been excellent and hugely encouraging:

“This service requires academics to work in such a different way. Because it’s quick and by necessity not as in depth as traditional evidence reviews. Traditionally things can often progress quite slowly, but it’s been a totally different response and things are getting turned around quickly”.

An example of the CCG requests came at the start of April, concerning the accuracy of self-monitoring heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation in patients with symptoms suggestive of COVID infection.  Other reviews that UWE researchers have been involved in include: the potential impact of COVID-19 on mental health outcomes and the implications for service solutions, Dr Faith Martin, and how to retain infection control amongst residents with dementia and a tendency to walk with purpose, Professor Rik Cheston.

Nicki explained in more detail how resources were best pooled:

“All academics involved have suggested what their skill set is so we have a really good idea who can do what. If it’s something incredibly specific like health economics for example, there may only be quite a small pool of people who can contribute to that. But for things like evidence synthesis most academics are able respond to these requests. The emphasis at the minute is ensuring that we’re able to provide good enough evidence to help with decision making in a rapid responsive way.”

Nicki also suggested how the work could benefit future collaborative research opportunities:

“I think it’s really innovative and supportive to our NHS colleagues. It also potentially creates further questions that could be researched later.”

The evidence syntheses are being regularly updated and are openly available here.

Professor Julie Mytton

Julie Mytton is a Professor of Child Health and a member of HAS’s Centre for Health and Clinical Research. She has specialised in public health research since 2006, with a particular interest in injuries and injury prevention. She is also a qualified medic.

Julie is one of many other UWE academics working with the Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing who are receiving calls for work from the CCG (via Nicki Walsh). She has also been in contact with University Hospitals Bristol NHS trust, and as a medic has joined their bank staff, providing clinical care support as and when needed.

Julie also noted that there is a Public Health Registrar, Alasdair Wood, based at UWE to offer further support.

Professor Jonathan Benger

Jonathan Benger, a Professor in Emergency Care and a Consultant in Emergency Medicine at the University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, has been released from his current clinical and academic duties, at the request of the National Medical Director, to assist in leading the national response to Coronavirus in his role as interim Chief Medical Officer at NHS Digital.

Professor Jo Michell

Jo Michell is an Associate Professor in Economics. His current research interests include macroeconomics, money and banking and income distribution. As soon as the nationwide lockdown was announced, Jo co-wrote a paper for the journal Autonomy outlining how “in order to cope with the increasingly severe reduction in economic activity in the UK, guaranteeing the incomes of all those who are eligible for in-work or out-of-work benefits is rapidly becoming a necessary policy lever.

This idea was picked up by John McDonnell (the then Shadow Chancellor), and it’s possible it may have played a role in influencing Rishi Sunak’s (the Chancellor) subsequent announcements. A follow up letter by Jo and 97 other economists was penned to The Times, and published on Monday 23rd March, “insisting that the government goes significantly further in its economic response to the Covid-19 crisis.”

Professor Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is Associate Professor in Public Health. His research specialises in the contribution that third sector and civil society initiatives make towards promoting public health and wellbeing. Mat and other colleagues in the Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing (CPHWB) have authored a report entitled Apart but not Alone: Neighbour Support and the Covid-10 Lockdown.

Carried out in Bristol and the West Country between 6th-12th April 2020, over 500 respondents reported back on neighbourhood initiatives during lockdown restrictions. A whole range have sprung up in recent weeks: social media support groups, food and medication collections, telephone calls, Zoom chats, leafleting. Interestingly, many neighbourhood groups were already in place before formal local/national efforts had been mobilised.

Of those who responded, the overwhelming majority felt that neighbours were supporting each other well. Mat Jones et.al did note however contrasting answers from those based in areas of high social disadvantage, with an emphasis on such neighbours supporting people with financial difficulties, those with disabilities or mobility issues, and people without easy access to outdoor spaces.

Perhaps most noteworthy were the gender in-balance responses (80% female): “an important issue is whether the practical and emotional work of supporting neighbours is falling disproportionately on women.”

Professor Sue Durbin

Sue Durbin is Professor in Human Resource Management and is a member of the Centre for Employment Studies Research in FBL. Sue has researched and written on gender and employment, specialising in women who work in male dominated industries. She is a co-founder, along with Airbus, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Aeronautical Society, of the alta mentoring scheme, a bespoke industry-wide mentoring programme designed for women/by women. Mentors and mentees can connect to this mentoring platform online or in person.

It is within the context of Covid-19 that alta can be seen to play a crucial role, with existing and new members utilising its online tool. Indeed, the value of online mentoring has never been so important, as Sue explains:

“It may become a time for mentors and mentees to take stock of where they are in their careers and where they would like to go.

Mentors can therefore best be utilised via the alta platform, at a safe distance but offering comfort and advice to women who may be feeling especially isolated, vulnerable or lacking confidence if their roles have been furloughed. Or they may simply want to reach out and turn the current situation into a more positive one.

“During the current pandemic, the restrictions on movement and new ways of working remotely have resulted in a physical disconnect from family, friends and colleagues. For those who already have an established mentoring relationship, this can be a crucial source of support, facilitating an opportunity for both mentor and mentee to discuss concerns and keep connected during this unprecedented time.”