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Clinical research projects in practice
  1. Natasha Mitchell


Natasha Mitchell recently completed a clinical research project while working in practice. Here, she discusses the benefits of embarking on practice-based research, and some things to consider when deciding on a project

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THERE are several organisations that provide grants to fund clinical research; these include the BSAVA's charity Petsavers, which funded my own project, the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation, the RCVS Charitable Trust, the Kennel Club, the Petplan Charitable Trust and the Dogs Trust. Each organisation has its own specific guidelines, and it is important to read these carefully to ensure that the project you would like to undertake falls within their criteria.

Petsavers provides grants for clinical studies, and in the past 30 years has awarded over £1.8 million to research projects. Veterinary surgeons working in practice in the UK, or in universities in the UK and Ireland, are eligible to apply.

Petsavers' clinical research project (CRP) grants support studies into naturally occurring disease in small animals. The objective of the study should be to investigate the chosen disease with the expected outcome of a change in the understanding, diagnosis or management of the condition. This should improve the current management of the condition and thus benefit pets.

There are many aspects of naturally occurring disease that have not yet been investigated in a scientific manner. The most achievable studies from private practice include prospective studies, investigations into the biological mechanism of disease and clinical trials.

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Why embark on a study?

There are many reasons why a vet might wish to embark on a study. There is a huge sense of personal fulfilment to have the ability to identify a subject that might benefit our patients, and to succeed in translating that idea into a scientific project, which can be published and contribute to the literature. The study could also form part of a postgraduate programme or qualification, many of which require publication of peer-reviewed papers or the production of a dissertation or thesis.

Being awarded a clinical research grant is an acknowledgement that experts in the field think that your idea is important and worthy of support. It allows your practice to support you with time and facilities when the project would otherwise be too expensive. Other people in the practice will benefit from seeing how clinical research can be carried out in private practice, which is something not normally taught to us as undergraduates.

Working in everyday practice, observations about trends in various aspects of clinical disease can become apparent. Vets who become particularly interested in studying a specific aspect of a clinical condition need to plan how best this might be achieved. It is important to discuss observations with other veterinary surgeons qualified in the field and to review the relevant literature relating to the subject. A study then needs to be designed that is likely to achieve the aims and to satisfy the grant awarder's guidelines.

While this might seem like a difficult task for vets without experience in research, it is important to remember that vets working in general practice treat a large number of cases compared with those working in referral or university settings. Referred cases are typically those that are more complicated or resistant to treatment, whereas clinicians working in everyday practice are exposed to a much greater number of cases, which are usually at the early stage of disease. Recruitment of cases is therefore potentially easier from practice, which is a big advantage.

Depending on the study design, there may be a need to include a group of control animals, and here again vets in practice have greater access to normal animals, and often have a good relationship with owners who might allow their animals to be included. It is also possible for vets in private practice and those in academia to submit applications jointly.

Where to start?

How you identify your research project is ultimately up to you. It is naturally going to be an area in which you have a keen interest, and therefore you will have read about the subject and have discussed the topic with vets who are more experienced in the area. A literature review is a good way to start, to ensure that the project has not been done before. Of course, not every idea can be completely innovative. If your area of interest has been studied before, you may identify a different approach or an angle that may be of better scientific value.

Once the subject has been identified and previously published work reviewed, the logistics of the project need to be worked out. This includes recruitment of cases: relevant cases can usually be identified by carrying out a search on the practice database. It is important to consider the time that you have available to invest in the study, and then to work out the time frame of the various steps that you will take until the final completion of the project. The next step is to write a research proposal, and this will be disussed in a future article in Vet Record Careers.

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