Winners of the RCGP/SAPC awards for outstanding early career researchers 2022

The RCGP Scientific Foundation Board (SFB) and the Society for Academic Primary Care (SAPC) are pleased to announce the winners of the 2022 Awards for Outstanding Early Career Researchers. Dr David Blane and Dr Olive van Hecke are the joint winners of the Academic General Practitioner award.

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

Academic General Practitioner Joint Award Winners: Dr David Blane and Dr Oliver van Hecke

Dr David Blane

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

My main area of interest is in the role – and potential – of primary care in mitigating health inequalities. We live in a society that is deeply divided, with increasing ‘social distance’ between the haves and have-nots. Inequalities in power, wealth and income drive this divide, but the distribution (and quality) of health care resource is an under-appreciated determinant of health (and health inequalities). I became involved in the ‘GPs at the Deep End’ group in 2010, while I was doing a Health Inequality Fellowship in Glasgow.

The group, which involves GPs serving the most socio-economically deprived communities in Scotland, has been an incredible source of inspiration for me and many others – there are now 11 Deep End GP groups across the UK and internationally. Professor Graham Watt, who worked with Dr Julian Tudor Hart of ‘inverse care law’ fame, was a driving force behind the group and promoted the idea that the NHS should be at its best where it is needed most.

Q: What does your research involve? 

Like most GPs, I consider myself a generalist, so my research uses mixed methods and has spanned a range of topics related to general practice and primary care. My PhD was about access to NHS weight management services and showed that, although people from the most deprived postcodes had higher levels of obesity (with co-morbidities), they were least likely to access NHS weight management support.

Recently, I have been involved in research related to Long COVID. This included a CSO-funded study examining the epidemiology of Long COVID in Scotland; and an NIHR grant testing whether a remotely delivered weight management intervention can improve symptoms of Long COVID for people overweight our obese. I’m also leading a project investigating responses to the inverse care law in primary care in Scotland (funded by the Health Foundation).

As academic lead for the Scottish Deep End Project, I’m keen to support other Deep End initiatives and to build the evidence base for integrating best practice from inclusion health into mainstream primary care.

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

The award will enable me to meet and collaborate with international researchers from Deep End groups around the world. My plan is to arrange a workshop with primary care researchers from these groups at the annual meeting of the North American Primary Care Research Group (NAPRCG) in 2023.

Specifically, I am keen to explore views on primary care advocacy related to social determinants of health and how capacity might be developed through research and education. If there are clear evidence uncertainties uncovered, I will build on this with a Priority Setting Partnership, following the process outlined by the James Lind Alliance.

This would include patient and carer groups and would result in jointly agreed research priorities, which would then be disseminated widely and used as a focus for future research and advocacy activity.

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

For those interested in academic primary care – whether clinical or non-clinical – I would highly recommend: 

  1. Contacting your nearest University department of general practice/primary care and finding out about opportunities
  2. Getting involved in the Society for Academic Primary Care (SAPC). It has been a really supportive network for me, and has excellent regional and national research meetings, with a range of special interest groups.

Dr Oliver van Hecke

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

My research interests are in common infections, antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and how we can optimise antibiotic use in primary care globally. This remains one of society’s most complex and pressing health issues.

My interest in infections stem from my early clinical experience in a subtropical region in South Africa near the Swaziland border. I was a junior doctor working with 14 other doctors running a 200-bed district hospital. This was a time before anti-retroviral medication, where around 1 in 4 patients had HIV/AIDS and/or tuberculosis and a host of opportunistic infections. The few antibiotics we had were useless. There was not much we could do except relieve patients’ suffering.

Looking back many years later, I think I caught a glimpse of a post-antibiotic world. Now, working as a generalist in one of the most marginalised boroughs in London, I am mindful of the difficulties that prescribers face daily about whether to prescribe an antibiotic or not.

Q: What does your research involve?

Promoting evidence-based antibiotic prescribing through successful antimicrobial stewardship (AMS) programmes are critical to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for common infections in primary care.

This requires a co-ordinated multimodal approach: 

  • Developing clinical decision-support tools for prescribers
  • Promoting cross-discipline efforts to optimise prescribing
  • Ensuring public-facing communication strategies are more impactful and sustainable
  • Utilising fit-for-purpose rapid diagnostic tests, including primary care in any approach to optimise prescribing and curb AMR.

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

More recently, I have forged new academic partnerships with researchers in South Africa. Working in tandem, we have successfully gone on to attain funding to start an implementation study (PRINS Study) to optimise antibiotic prescribing for acute cough in publicly funded primary care clinics in the Cape Town Metropole.

This award will contribute to my travel costs to meet my international colleagues and help set up the study locally. The findings will fill a fundamental gap in the evidence base that will inform antibiotic stewardship innovations, guideline development and future interventions.

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

There are opportunities out there. Make those informal enquiries at your local University Primary Care Department. Persevere. Don’t be too disheartened by failure. Winners are people who never quit. Pace yourself. It’s not a sprint but a beautiful journey.