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Health and social care research saves and improves people’s lives

Last updated on 1 Dec 2021

We are ten today! To mark the occasion our Chief Executive Matt Westmore looks at our first ten years and what comes next.

Matt Westmore

'We can all benefit from high-quality health and social care research taking place in the UK. It’s good for public health and the health of the economy. It helps us to better understand people’s health and social care needs, and how to meet those needs through improved services, prevention, diagnostics, treatments, care and support.

The UK has a vibrant research sector offering many people the opportunity to take part in good research today, and the findings of that research to improve health and social care for everyone tomorrow.  But we have work to do to make sure that these opportunities and benefits reach everyone, including those with the greatest need or who are often underrepresented in research.

Put simply, we need to ensure patients and the public are able to be true partners in research, and make it easy for researchers to do high-quality, cutting-edge research in the UK.

The first ten years

The Health Research Authority’s first ten years is a story of collaborating, innovating, streamlining and simplifying.

Ten years ago, the Academy of Medical Sciences reported that 'a complex and bureaucratic regulatory environment (was) stifling health research in the UK….'. The total number of trials taking place in the UK were decreasing, and almost half of the representatives of major pharmaceutical industries, surveyed in 2008 by the UK Association of the British Pharmaceutical industry, indicated that they expected to reduce the number further. This would have meant less research for people to take part in, less research to improve our health and social care services, and less research to contribute to the UK economy.

This situation, and in particular the Academy of Medical Sciences report, led to the creation of the HRA.

Since then, we‘ve simplified and streamlined getting research projects off the ground, without compromising on quality. We’ve joined up the system and standardised processes to reduce duplication, crucial when over half of applications to the HRA are for research that will take place in multiple places (up to 300 different sites). HRA approval, introduced in 2017, is a game-changer, eliminating the need to repeat governance and legal approvals at each place where research is going to take place. Combined review with the MHRA allows researchers to make one application to seek approvals from both agencies, ensuring consistency, and saving time and money.

We’ve reduced the time that it takes to gain ethics approval, without cutting corners. Our fast track process, building on the success of ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic, has halved the time it takes to review and approve research proposals to around 14 days. We’re working hard to make ethics approval more proportionate, innovative, efficient and trusted.

And we’re working UK-wide, to make sure that anybody taking part in health and social care research in the UK can expect the same standards, wherever they live, and to make it easier to do research across the four nations.

We’re also promoting, encouraging and advocating for behaviours that result in better research.

In 2010, just 19% of applications made to the HRA had public input. By 2019, it was 74%. High quality health and social care research always involves the people it impacts, and we are working with partners to make sure that all applicants know what we expect of them.

We’re making it easier for researchers to Make it Public and be transparent about their research, automating the process of registering clinical trials on a publicly searchable database and collecting a standard set of information at the end of a study to help make it easier for people to see what the project found.

Taken together, we’re shifting perceptions of ethics approval from a hurdle that must be overcome to a constructive, streamlined two-way process that helps researchers do better research. We’re also adding value to the system and increasing the UK’s competitiveness as a location to do great research that makes a difference to people’s lives.

We have not done all of that alone of course. The UK has perhaps the most integrated health research system in world, embedded within our national health and social care services. It is a partnership – one delivered by patients and the public, practitioners, policy makers, researchers, industry, regulators and funders – and not just in one country but across the whole United Kingdom. It works because, whilst we may come at it from different perspectives, we all are driven by the same social mission – improving people’s lives through research.

A world-leading response to COVID-19

These foundations, and a commitment to streamlining research approvals, meant we could respond quickly when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, helping the UK to get world-leading research approved and underway as quickly as possible, recruiting tens of thousands of participants.

And in the face of extreme pressure on the system, we helped researchers design their studies with participants and their lives in mind by leading a collaborative effort to create the UK COVID-19 public involvement matching service.

The future

We, our partners and the whole research community have much to be proud of but there is still much more we need to do to make it easier to do good research, prevent flawed research and improve the quality of all research.

We have delivered some groundbreaking innovations in the regulation and governance of research, and we are in extraordinary times. The pandemic has, of course been a terrible experience for all, but it has also been a crucible of innovation in how we regulate and deliver research. We’re learning from these extraordinary times to make the extraordinary, normal.

And the work doesn’t stop there, over the coming months, we’re shaping our future strategy and I hope that you will help. If you have comments or thoughts on the last ten years of the HRA or how we should grow and change in the next ten, get in touch. You can email us, please mark your message HRA at ten.

With your help, and continuing to work with our partners UK-wide we will deliver world-leading clinical research which transforms lives, promotes economic growth and is accessible to researchers and participants across the whole of the UK.'

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