Rachel Stacey and Lauren Hickling, are Clinical Studies Officers who are usually based at the Unit for Social and Community Psychiatry, at the Newham Centre for Mental Health.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, their work in ELFT paused and they volunteered to help with Coronavirus research to aid understanding of the virus and free up research nurses to go back to direct patient care. Here, they share their experiences, the type of work they have been doing, and how they have adjusted to working during lockdown.
If someone had told us in January that we'd be in this position now we'd never have believed them. Everything has developed so quickly, and as a result we've had to adapt our research and practice very rapidly.
Usually our work as Clinical Studies Officers consists of recruiting service users and carers from the Trust’s many inpatient wards and outpatient clinics to join research studies. We recruit for a variety of studies, such as surveys about experiences and feelings, protocols for reducing antipsychotic medication and evaluating novel psychosocial interventions. Just before lockdown a number of our projects were ‘paused’, due to their social and face-to-face format. So, we had to work with more remote options at home instead and had more time on our hands to support the NHS.
I volunteered to be redeployed to Bart’s Health as I’m fortunate to be in a position where I am able to assist the team’s delivering COVID-19 research whilst not risking my family. Having had a number of nurses in my family I also wanted to see what healthcare is like from their side of the fence and use this unique opportunity to be helpful and provide my skills.
Looking at Infection and Immunity in Healthcare Staff
One of the studies I’ve been involved with is looking at the infection and immunity levels of health care workers during the outbreak at St Bart’s Hospital. I was a bit concerned at first about what it would be like to enter a team part way through a study, especially during such a stressful time. However, the team were very welcoming and helped me to get up to speed. The days are very fast paced, and full of variety. Sometimes I was taking consent from new participants, re-consenting when the protocol changed, administering questionnaires, labelling bloods and instructing participants on how to use the saliva and nasal swab kits. Sometimes even distracting needle-phobic participants when it was their turn to have their bloods taken! For some of these tasks I needed to use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which I haven’t needed to use much in my career (aside from gloves when testing urine!). Wearing scrubs and a mask felt quite odd to start with, but I quickly got used to it, which is good as it’s something that may be around for a while!
Complete Change of Environment
By doing these tasks, I freed up research nurses to work in intensive care, so it feels like I’m doing something helpful. As we were sharing our space with the cardiac MRI scanning department, we sometimes had COVID-19 positive patients being scanned in the department; could hear the monitors beeping above us up in intensive care, and the room down the corridor was being used as a donning station (putting on PPE), so it was all quite surreal at times.
As well as keeping me mentally alert, I’ve found the job more physically tiring than usual, but at least it helps me to get my steps in! After a shift I like to go home and spend some time with my husband and cat. The garden has been a real sanctuary for me, which I will never again take for granted.
Working From Home
I’m not the most tech-minded person, and have definitely called upon my husband for tech support more times than I’d care to admit. However, working from home and being able to administer questionnaires and assessments online/over the phone has been fantastic to allow us to continue some of our work. Despite this, we do need to think about how we can be flexible in the future as to be inclusive with our assessments, and not exclude those without access to technology or those who do not feel comfortable with it.
Similarly to Lauren, I volunteered to be redeployed as I am fortunate enough to be healthy so felt the risks were fairly low for me compared to some of my other team members. I was asked to go and help out at the Royal London Hospital (RLH) on the GenOMICC study. This project involved asking patients with COVID-19 if we could take a small amount of blood to send to a genetics lab to study.
Talking to Worried Relatives
As many patients with COVID-19 are unconscious and on ventilators, I also spoke with patient’s families to take consent from them. Coming from a mental health background, I was daunted by the prospect of talking to family members of people who were very unwell about medical procedures. However, I went back to basics and used my skills in talking to people about sensitive topics, usually to do with mental health. Remembering that these are just people who were often worried about a family member, allowed me to connect with them and have easier discussions.
The team at the RLH had also been redeployed from other departments within the hospital so we were all learning about COVID-19 research together. Even though it was a new challenge for everyone, the team really supported me to get used to the hospital and decipher all the medical phrases!
Focusing on Children and and Teachers
When the Nightingale Hospital shut, a lot of the staff were brought back to their original posts so the RLH didn’t need my help anymore. Lauren and I were then asked to support the sKID study. This is an observational study being piloted in ELFT that aimed to find out the prevalence of COVID-19 within children of key workers and the teachers that have been in schools over the lockdown. For this study I travelled with a small research team around schools in Newham which was a totally different experience for me as I generally work with adult patients. It was great to meet lots of new people and talk to them about their experiences over the crisis. I found that a lot of the people I met over the past three months were really trying to look on the bright side of life and stay positive, which was a great boost to my own morale.
Positive Experience at a Difficult Time
Although working on these projects was out of my comfort zone it was a good opportunity to learn new skills, meet new people and explore a different side to healthcare. It has also been great to have routine and feel useful during such a scary and changeable time. As life begins to return to normal again, I am happy to start taking back on more tasks from my usual job, but would jump at the chance to help out again as it has been such a positive experience in a very difficult time.