Outstanding Early Career Researchers Awards 2024: Meet the winners - Dr Ben Bowers

The RCGP Scientific Foundation Board (SFB) and the Society for Academic Primary Care (SAPC) are pleased to announce the winners of the 2024 Awards for Outstanding Early Career Researchers. This award recognises the contribution of early career researchers to advancing primary care theory and practice. The winner of the Primary Care Scientist Award is Dr Ben Bowers, a Wellcome Postdoctoral Research Fellow and clinical academic community nurse at the University of Cambridge.

This Q&A provides some more information about his research journeys, interests, and advice for primary care researchers.

What is your main area of research interest, and how did this interest develop? 

My growing interdisciplinary programme of research focuses on improving end-of-life symptom control care and giving patients and families a greater voice in care decisions. This stems directly from my clinical practice as a community nurse. The desire to better understand care and perspectives led to me developing a research career, advancing the evidence-base in this critical stage of life for individuals and their families. 

It’s been quite a journey. I started out on my career as a healthcare assistant, having left school with no GCSEs. I now lead a programme of interdisciplinary research with the Primary Care Unit, University of Cambridge, and practice part-time as a Nurse Consultant in Palliative Care working in primary care.

My research draws on engineering design, patient safety, social sciences and palliative care disciplines. I am currently leading six studies. My Wellcome Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship is investigating the human and structural factors in the safe, effective and timely use of injectable medications at the end of life. I’m exploring how systems for using these medications can be improved for everyone involved. 

I’m also researching general practice and community nursing provision of palliative care, and end-of-life decision-making. All with the intent of enabling dignified dying at home.

What does your research involve, what challenges presented themselves during the research, and how did you overcome them? 

I focus on answering clinically relevant end-of-life care research questions, derived from issues witnessed in clinical practice. Working closely with public and clinician contributors throughout the research lifecycle, and beyond, is a central component in our research and ensures what we do is important to people and relevant.  

I led several studies to understand practices and experiences of decisions to prescribe and use anticipatory medications for end-of-life symptom control for my PhD. This was complex, nuanced and sensitive research to do, working with people in their last weeks and days of life. There was considerable ground work required ahead of applying for Ethical approvals and it was emotionally challenging fieldwork. Good preparation and the support of colleagues was invaluable throughout. 

One of the unexpected challenges were my findings. My published research in leading medical journals is robustly challenging established clinical orthodoxies about injectable medication best practice. I identified wide variations in anticipatory prescribing practices. Anticipatory medications can be both reassuring and a source of concern. Although administered anticipatory medications were reported to have generally helped symptom control, some family carers reported considerable difficulties in persuading community nurses to administer them when needed. As a result of my findings, I have been awarded three competitive grants to investigate how we can improve end-of-life symptom control in the community. 

The impact of my research and public engagement has been considerable: I was recently recognised as one of the 75 nurses and midwives whose work has had most impact on the NHS since its creation. My research findings have attracted the attention of national policymakers and have already resulted in positive changes to practice across the UK. For example, primary care services across two large geographic regions no longer recommend prescribing anticipatory syringe pumps. They have put in place safer systems to ensure timely assessments and access to injectable medications.

What are your plans for your future academic career, are there any research topics you hope to further explore?

My goal is to be a Clinical Academic Professor of Primary Palliative Care and lead an interdisciplinary community end-of-life care research programme. Enabling traditionally under-served members of communities to have a voice in research and end-of-life care is a particular priority and personal interest. 

I relish supporting others to develop their research skills, building research capacity in primary care and community nursing. I co-created and lead the UK-wide QNI Community Nursing Research Forum, which supports and develops future nurse researchers to improve patient care. Our inclusive community has disproved prevalent narratives that nurses are reluctant to get involved in research. The Forum started in 2022 and now has 877 members, with 44 members in our mentorship scheme. I’m keen to build on our successes and continue to innovate; we have recently been funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to continue our work as a pilot year.

All of this requires courageous research leadership. I am supported by an amazing team of interdisciplinary colleagues and collaborators, stimulating me to think in new ways. I am currently supervising and mentoring general practitioners, nurses and social scientists. I have excellent mentorship myself and feel strongly that part of research leadership is to invest in others and help them reach their potential as applied primary care researchers.

What will the RCGP/SAPC Early Career Award enable you to do?

It is huge recognition both for myself and the contribution of primary and community nurse-led research. It helps to demonstrate that nurses do high-quality research and lead from the front. 

I hope the Award will also open doors to new and exciting research collaborations. 

I plan to use the award money to contribute towards spending more in-person time learning from one of my research mentors, Professor Andrew Carson-Stevens (General Practitioner) and learn new patient safety method techniques that are highly applicable in primary care. I will learn about the Functional Resonance Analysis Method (FRAM) which is taught annually at Cardiff University by an external expert.

What advice do you have for people who want to work in primary care research?

Reach out. Find people that you admire in your field and approach them. Good research leaders will welcome your interest and ideas, so contact them and go from there.

Believe in your own abilities! Overcoming challenges, taking risks and believing in yourself are key as you navigate primary care research pathways.

About the writers

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RCGP Research and Innovation Team

RCGP Research and Innovation Team

Further information: research@rcgp.org.uk