My Role in Research: Dr Matt Thomas, Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine

Dr Matt Thomas

Dr Matt Thomas, Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine at North Bristol Trust and Local Specialty Research Lead at the NIHR Clinical Research Network West of England, shares his experience of working in research.

Over 20 years ago there were a lot of big trials happening that looked like they were going to make a lot of changes in critical care. I was in Australia at the time, working on the unit where a lot of these trials had come from. I got to meet the people running them and see what their set-up was like. That was when I really started to feel that research is really exciting and that it should be part of what I do! I came back to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, and was given the time to try and make that happen here.

From an academic standpoint, I enjoy being able to take a step back when new studies come out, and to think in some depth about a certain aspect of your work and speciality. It’s always an opportunity to learn and improve upon your practice. When you have been part of it there is of course an element of satisfaction knowing that in some way, you are contributing to better healthcare. Whatever way the research turns out, you always learn something, and thus doctors up and down the country learn something new too.

The studies I’ve enjoyed working on the most are the simple ones. The ones that are pragmatic, straightforward and where you don’t end up tied up in lots of protocols. It’s all about the things you do day-in day-out that will potentially have a big impact.

I think the most impactful recent developments in critical care research have come from COVID-19 studies. The RECOVERY Trial, a trial aimed at identifying treatments that may be beneficial for people hospitalised with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, is the biggest example of this. It’s a platform trial where you could see interventions swap in and swap out. I think this has a lot of benefits for both those running the study and patients. It shows that you can make efficient studies that are very productive in terms of outputs.

One quality you need in research is patience, nothing happens quickly! Sometimes you need to be prepared to invest years before you see your work come to fruition. You will also get a lot of knock-backs, which definitely aren’t failures as you learn a lot along the way. It’s always the case that people like studies with a statistically significant finding, but a lot of studies don’t get this. So you have to be patient and resilient. I think it’s easy to overcomplicate things in critical care with detail after detail on surrogate outcomes when what we should be looking at are long-term outcomes, not just survival rate, but what the quality of that survival is.

A great thing about research is the collaboration. You will meet people from different backgrounds with different expertise, and you will constantly learn from them along the way. You can’t do it all alone! Having been a research lead for many years and the LSRL for the NIHR CRN WE, people are starting to come to me looking to collaborate, and they have some really great ideas. There are a couple of very exciting trials coming up that focus on what might be a fundamental mechanism of critical illness. It would be really exciting to do that research on our unit, and build links with people in the hospital that we hadn’t had before. I’m really hopeful that over the next year or so these trials will come to fruition.

Further information

My Role in Research: Dr Matt Thomas, Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine