Published on 12 December 2023
More than £2million in funding has been awarded to the University of Sunderland to expand research opportunities for medical students and junior doctors - leading to improvements in people's health and wellbeing.
Dr Ellen Tullo, supported by Professor Scott Wilkes, Head of the School of Medicine, have secured funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to establish a Clinical Academic Training Office (CATO) and Academic Clinical Fellowship (ACF) programme.
Over the next three years the bids will deliver eight Academic Clinical Fellowships, 30 medical student internships and 30 funded intercalated degrees – intercalation is an intensive additional year of study, usually at Master’s level, to equip students with extended academic skills.
The long-term goal of CATO and ACF posts is improved quality of care for patients and potential advances in medical training.
The research will also support work already taking place at the University in areas such as public health, and aligns with the NIHR’s mission to focus on early translational research, clinical research and applied health and social care research.
Professor Wilkes says: “This is game changing for the School of Medicine and the University. Having traction with such bids within the NIHR is excellent news and creates a research environment which will support the research excellence of our academics. I’m truly excited to see this acorn grow into an oak tree.”
The programme is supported with the appointment of a CATO Clinical Academic Director, CATO Manager, CATO Administrator (research) and CATO Administrator (education).
Dr Tullo is a specialty doctor in geriatrics at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Clinical Academic and Intercalated Degrees Lead for the School of Medicine. She says: “Many NHS doctors are involved in research, but only a small minority will gain a PhD, and become formal clinical academics.
“Our programme is about getting those essential research skills early in a medical undergraduate's career to build up their academic portfolio.
“For those students who embark on research projects and intercalation, even if they don't become a professor or complete a PhD, they are still in a better position to carry out research within the NHS. The ACF programme is about upskilling the workforce for the benefit of patients.”
She added: “Ultimately, this funding is recognition of academic potential and a way for us to make our medical healthcare research even better, more impactful, and to develop research collaborations. In years to come we will have research intensive laboratories and teams, putting out excellent work that has wide ranging benefits for patients.”
All of the University’s academic planning for CATO and ACF has happened alongside Newcastle Health Innovation Partners (NHIP) Academy – a regional organisation, with a remit to improve the health and wellbeing of people in the north-east.
Also supporting and supervising students and ACFs during the course of their projects, will be South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust (STSFT), which has a long-established partnership with the University when it comes to collaboration and research.
Deepali Varma, Director of Research and Consultant Ophthalmologist at STSFT, said: “Research is vital to improve health and our Trust is passionate about it.
"We have a vast portfolio of multi-specialty clinical research, conducting over 250 new trials in the last five years. Several of these have offered ground-breaking treatments and cutting-edge technology.
"We have not only improved the health outcomes and experience for our patients but also made a global impact.
"STSFT is delighted to support the University of Sunderland in nurturing and developing the clinical researchers of the future and offer them an opportunity to gain knowledge and mentorship from our experts.
"This funding by the NIHR facilitates that and as a Trust, we look forward to working collaboratively with University of Sunderland in this exciting work."
CATO and ACF will further enhance health science research already taking place at Sunderland, which focuses on the development of interventions and technology for use in healthcare and delivery of health services innovation.
The news also comes after the University recently announced it has submitted a bid to central government to triple the size of the School of Medicine.
The bid means that instead of recruiting 100 new medical students each year, the University will be aiming to recruit 300, meaning that the size of the medical school would grow to 1,500 students by early next decade.
The University's School of Medicine opened in 2019, with the first cohort of new doctors expected to graduate at the Stadium of Light in summer 2024.
The bid is the latest in a series of recent health-related research developments at the University which are already making a significant contribution to the City.