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New role highlights greater emphasis on nursing research


The appointment of its first ever Director of Nursing and Midwifery Research and Innovation signals Oxford University Hospital’s determination to highlight the important role nurses and other non-medical staff can play in research, and the fact that research can be an important career pathway.

Dr Helen Walthall took up the newly-created role, partly funded by the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), in early May, joining from Oxford Brookes University, where she was research lead for nursing, and ran the doctorate of nursing, having developed its curriculum.

As a nurse, Helen has been active in research, with a background in cardiac care, mainly in the area of heart failure or acute coronary syndrome. Despite her job title, Helen sees her remit as covering non-medical, not just nursing, research. 

OUH’s Chief Nursing Officer, Sam Foster, said: “In partnership with the BRC, we are extremely grateful for the support that we have had to enable the appointment of Helen. She brings the experience and tenacity we need to enable nursing and midwifery research to realise the opportunities we have to maximise the capacity and capability of our talented staff to deliver an exciting strategy aimed at excellence in care.”

National agenda

Helen’s appointment fills a gap at OUH, and allows it to help support a growing national agenda around academic clinical careers and nursing research, which first emerged in the mid-noughties and gained momentum with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) developing its programme for non-medical researchers, and then its 70@70 senior nurse and midwife research leader programme, which it launched 18 months ago.

While there are many nurses at OUH and the University of Oxford doing research delivery, there are far fewer clinical nurses doing research in their own domain, and this is an area where Helen wants to have an impact.

“There’s an important national focus on the non-medical workforce in an academic research domain. That agenda is about nursing having a clinical role, alongside being a research leader in practice,” Helen explains. “It’s about the duality of the role. The research you carry out is from your clinical practice; you research it in order to change practice.

“There is a big national agenda around the need to move nursing research forward. It derives from the fact that, as an all-graduate profession, nursing should align with the other health professionals and at the moment this is not the case.” 

Helen, who says she has had a positive response from nurses to her appointment, feels that one of the key elements of her job will be to increase the ‘research awareness’ of staff. “I think the vision in Oxford is that nursing is seen alongside medicine as a profession in its own right, for our practice as nurses to become evidence-based, and for the solutions to questions that affect nursing care of patients to emerge from nurses.”


It is hoped that giving nurses, midwives and other allied health professionals greater opportunity to engage in and lead research in Oxford will help with the recruitment and retention of staff.

Helen says: “There’s plenty of evidence, as highlighted in the Francis report in 2013, that there’s a connection between giving nurses the opportunity to do research and retention. We need to keep clinical nurses clinical and giving them a pathway to remain in a post to lead both practice and research would be very positive.”

The Oxford BRC’s involvement in Helen’s recruitment and its support for the development of an academic clinical career path has been important in driving this agenda forward.

The BRC’s Training and Education Lead, Prof Sarah Rowland-Jones, said: “We are delighted about Helen’s appointment. We hope she will be able to work with us on developing nursing research pathways.

“We have been trying for many years to develop better training opportunities for nurses, midwifes and allied health professionals (AHPs) who want to build an academic career. It has been difficult attracting nurses to research, not least because the national shortage of nurses has made it difficult for them to take time away from their clinical duties."

She notes that recently “a number of factors have aligned to change the situation”: the Trust is keen to offer academic pathways for nurses, partly to improve recruitment and retention. And interest in research careers among nurses, midwives and AHPs has been boosted by new personnel arriving at Oxford Brookes University, including Dr Mary Malone, Director of the Oxford School of Nursing and Midwifery, and Prof Paul Carding, Director of OxINMAHR, the Oxford Institute of Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Research. 

The links between the various partner institutions – OUH, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, Oxford Brookes University and the University of Oxford, under the umbrella of the Oxford Academic Health Partners – has resulted in a working group, chaired by Prof Carding, to develop an Oxford pathway for nursing, midwifery and AHP research careers.

Helen still has strong links to Brookes; she is a visiting research fellow, and still supervises PhD students, including a number of OUH nurses. She has convened a group of around 21 people at OUH who are on that doctoral journey.

“We need to support them. If they have done their PhD, we need to ask what follows. Do they go back to the same job?  We not only need to work out the pathway, but we need to look at what we want nurses with doctorates to do afterwards, and how we want to energise them to develop nursing in a broader sense, not just in a specific role,” she says.