CRN support for HSR

Clinical Research Network Support for Health Services Research

As a CRN Health Service Research (HSR) Specialty Lead for Wessex I was sometimes asked by colleagues “What can the CRN do for me?” There remains a widespread assumption amongst many researchers, clinical and academic alike, that the CRN is ‘only’ about “the numbers on the Portfolio”. Indeed, the CRN Portfolio remains at the heart of what the CRN does, providing a database of research projects, and monitoring activity (recruitment to trials and studies) across England. Data from the NIHR CRN Portfolio informs allocation of NHS infrastructure for research so this work is vital across the NIHR and NHS.

A less well known aspect of the CRNs work is its fantastic Study Support Service. This is a free service to help researchers and life sciences industry partners to set up and deliver high quality research in the NHS and in the wider health and social care sector in England. It is worth checking out the website to see the wide range of things that the CRN can support.

In this blog we provide one case study of how a clinician applying for a NIHR Postgraduate award (to support a Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship (CDRF) and linked research project) was helped by CRN Wessex HSR team.

Clare’s story

Clare Ryan is a Clinical Specialist physiotherapist at Solent NHS Trust and she approached Catherine Pope and Lisa Roberts at University of Southampton as potential supervisors for her proposed PhD to explore an important research question about improving care for people with acute episodes of lower back pain. Because Catherine was the HSR specialty lead for Wessex CRN she suggested that Clare make contact with the CRN team to access their support. Over a series of emails, phone calls and a meeting with 3 members of the CRN team (2 study support/delivery leads and an accountant) Clare was able to refine her study design and application to NIHR.

Clare said: “The CRN were great at helping me to understand the support I could access to help recruitment, both of my research sites and how to identify potentially relevant interested participants. They talked me through the governance issues and the costs of this, as well as providing the practical information I needed to plan my project. They helped me to visualise what setting up the study would look and feel like, which made it seem real and possible.”

The CRNs have a key role in supporting recruitment to research, and in particular they are charged with supporting the ambition of the NIHR to ensure that research is relevant to the needs of people of England. The most recent NHS England Research Needs Assessment (2018) not only identified research topics and disease areas that need to be studied, this document and the wider NHS Plan, also made it clear that the research should be done in areas of the country where the population experienced these health care and service needs.


In part this has provided a much needed push for the research community – many of whom are located in Universities, major cities, and/or associated University Hospital Trusts – to spread their research activity more widely around areas of England (see related case study on how the CRN can help, and our wider work on the distribution of research).

With this in mind the CRN team were able to help Clare think about how her project could deliver maximum benefit.

Clare found that the support from the CRN complemented the support she received from the NIHR South Central Research Design Service which focused on methodological guidance, help with plans for Patient and Public Involvement (see relevant blog) proof reading and interview preparation. Clare came back from meeting the CRN team full of enthusiasm about her NIHR application and said that “The CRNs interest and excitement about recruiting from urgent care sites (a setting they wished to develop their recruitment from) was such a boost. They also provided a wealth of ideas for ways to work around potential difficulty recruiting from this setting.”

Clare’s application was a success and in April she began her fellowship postgraduate studies and has plans for her project to join the NIHR CRN portfolio in due course.

What CRN advised Clare about:

  • different recruitment strategies - patients contacting the researcher or researcher contacting patients
  • possible and known challenges with recruitment and response rates in the target population and research sites
  • suggesting types of health care professionals who could identify potentially eligible participants from a different setting (e.g. community pharmacists)
  • steps to improve the likelihood of attracting research sites and to maximise recruitment e.g. identifying on site clinical contacts who would facilitate recruitment and act as research champions
  • best timeframes for making formal contact with research sites/ research champions
  • site set up fees - help with pricing the time of clinicians who would recruit patients to the study (eg costs for GPs, NHS band 7 clinicians etc)
  • checking that the budget was comprehensive and realistic e.g. reminder to include the cost of shipping research packs to research sites
  • differentiating between research costs and NHS support costs
  • network contacts in the Research Team within the host Trust
  • which funding bodies the CRN worked with - in case the NIHR CDRF bid was unsuccessful and alternative funding was needed

Nikki Cullum, the AHP Research Champion for the Wessex CRN region, adds: “Part of my role is to support and sign-post clinicians with ambitions to become involved in research, from running their first project to pursuing a clinical academic career. The CRN Study Support Service is a brilliant resource that helps researchers at all levels through the planning, set-up and delivery phases of studies, and I would encourage those interested to get in touch at the earliest possible stage of planning their research to benefit from all the fantastic advice that is available.” Nikki is available to support all AHPs across Wessex and welcomes individuals to contact her on