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8 Jan 2021

COVID-19 is a challenge – but other health and care priorities haven't gone away

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Professor Chris Price is the Deputy Director of the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) for the North East and North Cumbria (NENC). He is a Professor of Stroke and Applied Health Research at Newcastle University, and a Stroke Medicine Consultant. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he has continued to work treating stroke and suspected stroke patients at the Northumbria Hospital, Cramlington – part of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

As pressures on the NHS continue into 2021 and as England is placed into another national lockdown, Chris shares his frontline experiences and reflections on how COVID-19 has impacted patients, staff and the continuation of research work.

“The way the NHS and social care staff continue to respond to the pandemic has been nothing short of amazing. We’ve had to completely change many systems and usual ways of doing things and staff have had to cover for each other and take on some extra risks themselves. They’ve also been there to emotionally support patients when their own family members couldn’t be, as well as be a communication channel between patients and their families.

My experiences have shown without doubt that there is a huge sense of duty and community within the care workforce. However, all of this has placed a real extra burden on staff. The changing situation has often meant covering at very short notice for colleagues and doing many extra shifts just to keep the system moving. There’s been a huge sense of pulling together and doing what’s needed to be done, no matter what.
On the flip side of this, one of the more difficult things is seeing clinical colleagues who have experienced deteriorations in their own health from rising to the pressures they’re facing in dealing with this pandemic. We’re fortunate to have employers who understand this, and support is available.

On the patient side of things, in A and E we’ve seen a notable increase in people attending with problems related to anxiety or alcoholism. This is a big concern, as it means we have people out there in our communities who are struggling with serious mental health or addiction issues, but the first time they’re presenting is when they arrive at A and E.

In my own area, this is also very sadly the case with things like brain tumours which may have been picked up earlier in more normal times. We know from speaking to patients, or their family members, that in many cases people have felt they didn’t want to burden the NHS during COVID-19. It’s really important that people know we’re still here for them and they should always seek the appropriate help if they think they might need it, especially for conditions which need emergency treatment, such as stroke.

During all of this I’m really pleased we were able to establish an Applied Research Collaboration for the North East and North Cumbria and complete the first round of Open Funding Competition awards for 31 projects. These projects will deliver responsive research in our region, as well as connect academia with care providers to ensure that research can be applied as successfully as possible.

Maintaining important research has been one of the biggest challenges during 2019 and reinforces the importance of having a stable health research community across the region. COVID-19 is a challenge, but our other health and care priorities haven’t gone away – people are still having medical and social emergencies, suffering from addiction problems, living with long term conditions – and in many cases COVID-19 has made the impact of these other health challenges, worse.

January is looking, frankly, a bit grim at the moment in terms of COVID-19 and pressure on the workforce, but I have no doubt that we will all continue to do what we can including taking the opportunity to receive the vaccine if we’re offered it.

For me, it’s quite incredible what our NHS and social care staff have been able to achieve so far and how our researchers have continued to focus on current and future priorities. I hope that we will soon see light at the end of the tunnel and emerge looking towards the future with optimism for what we can achieve together as a bonded community.”