Winners of the RCGP/SAPC awards for outstanding early career researchers 2023

The RCGP Scientific Foundation Board (SFB) and the Society for Academic Primary Care (SAPC) are pleased to announce the winners of the 2023 Awards for Outstanding Early Career Researchers.

The winner of the Academic General Practitioner award is Dr Benjamin Brown.

The winner of the Primary Care Scientist award is Dr Sarah Bailey.

This award recognises the contribution of early career researchers to advancing primary care theory and practice. The Q&As below provides some more information about their research journeys, interests, and advice.

Dr Benjamin Brown

Q. What is your main area of research expertise/interest, and how did this develop?

I am a Senior Academic GP and health informatician. My research focuses on building digital tools that use novel approaches to analysing health data. My aim is to support clinicians and patients make better decisions, automate tasks to reduce their workload, and minimise health inequalities.

A recent example of my work is an online consultation system called PATCHS that uses deep learning (a form of machine learning and artificial intelligence) to triage patient messages to their GP practice. It can signpost patients to emergency services or encourage self-care as appropriate, highlight patients that may need more urgent help or an in-person appointment, and workflow requests to clinicians that require their input. The system analyses patient messages written as unstructured free text in over 30 different languages and is being used by GP practices across England and Wales. You can read more about PATCHS on their website and how it uses artificial intelligence.

I first became interested in health informatics as a Foundation Trainee working at Salford Royal Hospital where they had one of the first hospital-based electronic health records in England. The ability to extract and analyse routinely collected health data then feedback findings to clinicians opened my eyes to opportunities to improve health care at scale. My interest was cemented after rotations in General Practice where computerisation was more advanced. I then undertook academic GP training and have been based in both the primary care and health informatics departments at The University of Manchester ever since. I’ve subsequently built medication safety dashboards, chronic disease clinical decision support systems, and software to process letters from secondary care.

Q. What does your research involve?

There are multiple stages to building digital tools for clinical practice, and my research covers all of them, this includes:

  • identifying a problem to solve,
  • developing a technological solution,
  • testing the solution on a small-scale to improve its design,
  • implementing the solution into clinical practice,
  • evaluating its impact on patient care.

The research methods I use differ for each stage and include:

  • literature reviews,
  • large-scale database studies,
  • software usability tests,
  • qualitative interviews,
  • randomised controlled trials.

I work with large multidisciplinary teams that include:

  • statisticians and data scientists,
  • qualitative researchers,
  • software developers,
  • project managers,
  • implementation teams,
  • industry partners.

A typical work week (aside from my clinical practice) includes:

  • traditional research tasks like data analysis,
  • writing papers,
  • applying for research grants.

They also include more niche activities like:

  • designing software,
  • leading clinical safety workshops (required for all software used in the NHS),
  • Software demonstrations to potential users,
  • writing medical device reports.

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

There are many unanswered research questions about online consultations. Given their ubiquity in primary care both in England and globally. There’s a need to identify priorities for future research on the subject.

The RCGP / SAPC Early Career Award will allow me to hold a priority-setting workshop, which will be done in collaboration with:

  • Dr Helen Atherton, The University of Warwick
  • SAPC Digital Technologies in Primary Care Special Interest Group.

In order to develop a list of research priorities for online consultations, the workshop will draw on the knowledge of:

  • academic colleagues,
  • practical experience of clinical staff,
  • lived experience of patients and members of the public.

We will disseminate these widely and use them to inform co-ordinated efforts across university departments to submit research grant applications.

Q. Based on your experience, what advice do you have for people who are interested in working in research within this field?

My first tip is to contact people whose work you would like to emulate. This could be academics in university departments – primary care, health informatics, data science, or computer science – though it could also be at technology companies. Making contact out of the blue isn’t always successful, so be prepared to approach multiple people.

My second tip is to obtain some funding, so you have dedicated time to do research. You can ‘dip your toe’ in between clinical commitments, but this isn’t sustainable and doesn’t lead to high-quality training or research. There are national sources of funding for GPs to get into research like the NIHR In-Practice Fellowship, and there are local sources of funding that university primary care departments will know about.

My final tip is to gain some informatics-specific specialist knowledge. You don’t necessarily need to know how to code, but you should be able to speak the same language as software developers and data scientists. There are lots of courses that can help, many of which are free to do online.

Dr Sarah Bailey

Q. What is your main area of interest, and how did that develop?

Often patients with early stages of cancer present to their GP with non-specific symptoms, making early detection challenging. More specific symptoms tend to be associated with advanced stage disease (although this is not always the case). My research is focussed on helping GPs identify patients who would benefit from investigation for suspected cancer, with the aim of catching cancer earlier to improve patient outcomes.

I took the long route into cancer diagnosis as a graduate my first research job was in dentistry and later in child health. Having enjoyed the observational research study I carried out as part of my Master of Public Health, I moved to cancer diagnosis research to start my PhD, which studied cancer diagnosis following thrombocytosis in primary care. I found that 11% of men and 6% of women aged 40 years and over with a high platelet count were diagnosed with cancer within a year. This was an exciting finding; the platelet count was a largely ignored part of the full blood count prior to my PhD. This study was the top-rated paper in the BJGP in 2017 and won their Research Paper of the Year award (cancer category). The findings have been integrated into health policy in the UK and internationally.

The work I carried out during my PhD was so interesting and it was great to see a translation from research into change in practice, so I decided to continue my research career in the primary care cancer detection field. More recent studies include evaluating FIT for patients with low-risk bowel symptoms in the South West of England and studying the impact of integrating genetic risk scores for cancer into primary care.

Q. What does your research involve?

Most of my research is observational and based on large routinely collected healthcare datasets. I am currently using such datasets to develop cancer symptom risk assessment methods for GPs for their patients with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Some chronic health conditions make certain cancers more likely to develop or may alter how they present. They can also mask or provide alternative explanations for the symptoms of cancer. I am also involved in developing and evaluating new cancer detection strategies in the NHS.

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

The award will enable me to travel to visit my research collaborators in the Netherlands. The aim of the visit will be to translate the cancer detection tools for diabetic patients developed in my NIHR Fellowship into Dutch primary care settings. The anticipated benefits of this visit are strengthened links with another academic primary care group and to broaden my experience of different research environments and cultures. This visit will enable international comparison of findings, best practice, and barriers for cancer detection. This learning can be applied through my research programme to benefit cancer detection in the UK.

Q. Based on your experience, what advice do you have for people who are interested in working in the research field?

Reflecting on my career to date and my development as a researcher I think the most important ingredient has been working within a supportive and intellectually stimulating team. My advice to anybody looking to do translational health research, regardless of specialism, would be to find a team that has a research culture that wants you to succeed.

About the writer

For more information about these awards and other research awards you can get in touch with Lottie Curtis, RCGPs Research Projects and Communications Officer at: or

To contact the winners please follow Dr Benjamin Brown and Dr Sarah Bailey on Twitter.