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UK's Clinical Research Nurses Help Make Discoveries Happen

Across the University of Kentucky, clinical research nurses carry out clinical procedures and care for those who participate in research studies. They not only provide the best possible patient care, but they also help make discoveries that advance healthcare altogether.

Research nurses have long been at the heart of health research, but it wasn’t until late 2016 that the American Nurses Association recognized clinical research nursing as nursing specialty practice.

For Linda Rice, a registered nurse and director of clinical operations for the clinical services core (CSC) of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), the designation of a clinical nursing specialty for research means a great deal.

“It means a lot to me that my colleagues recognize our specialty – that all the time and effort and years of training are acknowledged by our board and peers,” Rice said. “I’ve enjoyed seeing my profession grow, and knowing that the decisions we make to take care of our patients are based on evidence-based research. It does take nurses to conduct successful clinical research, and they have to specifically trained – it’s a body of knowledge and experience.”

Working across medical specialties

Rice oversees a team of nurses who assist in conducting research in the CCTS inpatient and outpatient research units for adults and children. They also provide additional clinical research services, such as study coordination.

Over the last three years, the CCTS CSC has averaged between 1,200 and 1,500 inpatient bed-nights per year, 1,600 to 1,800 outpatient days per year, and 500 to 700 offsite visits per year. During this time, the clinical research nursing team has also had to perform increasingly complex tasks, such as euglycemic clamps, oral glucose tolerance tests, muscle/bone biopsies, a wide variety of infusions (like monoclonal antibodies and immunotherapies), pediatric care and off-site care.

In total, about 56 research nurses work in research across medical specialties at UK, such as cancer, neurology, surgery, neonatology/pediatrics, cardiology, behavior science and substance use disorders, emergency care, and infectious diseases.

‘Research is the hope of the future’

Rice entered the field after encountering research nursing in her undergraduate training. Hoping to use this aspect of her education, she applied for a research coordinator job. The possibility of finding ways to improve patient care has motivated her work for nearly three decades.

“I love being on the cutting edge,” she said. “I love knowing, as a nurse, what other things are out there that are being trialed to improve care for patients. I was drawn to this profession because I wanted to help people. And what better way than to be on the front end of trying to make things better? Someone told me once that without research, there is no hope. Research is the hope of the future for better health. And to help facilitate that is such a reward.”

The primary task is the same in research nursing as in standard clinical nursing: to care for people, in this case research participants. But research nurses must possess a repertoire of knowledge and skills far beyond clinical practice. They must also know the complex tiers of institutional and federal regulations that govern health research in general, as well as the intricate protocols and diverse clinical skills required by each specific research study.

No two days are alike

Kathy Holbrook is a registered nurse and is a clinical research coordinator who also works with the CCTS. She’s been a research nurse for 13 years but said that when she started in the field, she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into.

“I learned as I went along,” she said. “But you’re still a nurse first. That means you’re ensuring the health and safety of whomever you’re taking care of. For me, it’s research volunteers.”

Holbrook finds the her work in research nursing to be invigorating and appreciates that no two days are ever alike. At any given time she might be working on several research studies in different medical specialties that require her to perform an array of tasks.

“We do a lot of data collection and we make a lot of observations to support the thesis of the protocol,” Holbrook said. “We educate our participants and volunteers on what it means to be a participant in research. And research protocols have you do procedures you might not often do in bedside or clinic nursing. The variety is endless, and that’s one of the things that keeps it fresh and interesting.”

Working closely with study volunteers and researchers is another highlight of the job, Holbrook said.

“It’s very heartwarming to know that people are willing to give of themselves for altruistic reasons,” she said. “And in working with the researchers, we get to see people being creative and thinking outside of the box to really look at something differently and ask how we can do something better.”