Why research needs to be embedded in our healthcare system

2 Sep 2021

Image: Dr Natalie Cole

Tallaght University Hospital’s new head of innovation discusses how the research sector has changed over the years and the challenges it still faces.

At the beginning of August, Tallaght University Hospital (TUH) announced the appointment of Dr Natalie Cole as head of innovation.

Cole brings more than 20 years of experience in health research and innovation, having worked in the HSE, Trinity College Dublin and Northwestern University in Chicago.

Her role at TUH will see her lead the establishment of a new dedicated innovation centre at the hospital.

“I believe I have been working towards this current role my entire career, but the position never existed when I started out,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

“This position brings together my passion for research and innovation but also the translation of that to having real positive impact on patients, service users and staff.”

The centre will provide an opportunity to test healthcare innovation projects across clinical and non-clinical departments.

Cole said that the space will allow support the provision of ‘idea clinics’, which will allow staff ideas to develop from problem-solving stage all the way through to development and implementation.

“The hospital has a strong reputation for research and innovation and my role will be to support and develop the pipeline of innovation projects and ensure that patients and service users are at the centre of that innovation,” she said.

“To deliver real advances in healthcare you need commitment and enthusiasm from staff, strong relationships with academia and industry. TUH has all of these elements. I am looking forward to nurturing and developing innovation capability with the clear aim of delivering benefits for patients.”

‘The term PCR is now part of everyday language. Research has come into every household’

Cole has always had a passion for research and innovation, specifically in the translation of projects from ‘bench to bedside’. “I initially pursued a career in academic research and was assistant professor of neurogenetics at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago – the first lab to discover the genetic linkage for motor neurone disease.”

On returning to Ireland, Cole was research fellow for Trinity spin-out company NeuroPath. However, due to short-term contracts in academic research and the lack of a clear career path, she left academia and moved into change and project management. This is what gave her the skillset to develop and deliver large, complex healthcare projects.

One such project was the HSE health research governance framework, which was developed from scoping work she had done within the HSE.

The framework aims to clarify roles and responsibility of approval and oversight of health research projects.

“It is the start, hopefully, of an exciting journey for the HSE to support researchers by developing guidelines and policies to support researchers to comply with regulations,” said Cole.

Changes in the research sector

Cole said research has changed dramatically throughout her career, particularly with its engagement with technology.

“It is inconceivable to junior researchers now, that to obtain one research article could take months. When I started my career and by the time you received the article it was most likely out of date,” she said.

“The advancement of technology with the human genome sequencing and gene array technology is mind-blowing. We were capable of delivering results in weeks which would have previously taken years.”

She also pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has brought research and innovation discussions into the general public much more than ever before.

“The term PCR is now part of everyday language. Research has come into every household, from keeping up to date with the development of vaccines to the adoption of new technologies and remote working,” she said.

“Covid-19 has shone a light on the fact that research and innovation needs to be embedded as ‘business as usual’ in our healthcare system and the challenge will be to ensure that we deliver on that.”

Cole has also seen a change in the research landscape when it comes to women working in the sector.

“I am delighted to see that more women than ever are starting careers in research and there has been a noticeable increase in more senior female positions. There is, however, unfortunately, a major issue of women dropping out of research at a higher rate than men at every stage of their careers,” she said.

“Several of my female colleagues, like myself, left academic research to pursue careers in project management as there was a more defined career path and security of contracts. I was also disappointed, but not surprised, to see the emerging data that female academic research has plummeted during the Covid-19 lockdown.”

While there is still much work to be done for women in academia and research, Cole’s new appointment can be seen as a positive step.

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic