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Barriers to academic–clinician collaborations

Shutterstock/Dmytro Zinkevych
Shutterstock/Dmytro Zinkevych

Translational research needs productive interdisciplinary collaborations between academics and clinicians to maximise the positive impact of science on patients and the wider society. Here, researchers from Oxford discuss a recent informal survey on the barriers to these important collaborations, reigniting a discussion around potential ways to enable cooperation in biomedical research.

As a group of academics and clinicians, we are aware both that interdisciplinary collaborations are critical to translational research, but also that establishing these collaborations is often challenging. 

To explore possible obstacles to collaboration, we conducted a survey of nearly 200 biomedical academics, clinicians, and clinical academics working at the University of Oxford or Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (with those from ‘Infection and Immunology’ making up a quarter of respondents). Our central question was ‘What are the main barriers preventing you from establishing an academic–clinical collaboration?’. Over 80% of respondents indicated that they had personally encountered barriers to collaboration. While both academics and clinicians flagged ‘Funding’ and ‘Difficulties with contracts, data sharing, or other legal issues’, the major barrier we encountered was ‘Identifying someone with the right skill set or expertise’.

We believe this is problematic and that translational research is undermined by inefficient identification of cross-disciplinary collaborators. When lab-developed concepts cannot be moved from bench to bedside, this leads to reduced research output, reduced positive impact on patients, and wasted potential in the expertise of the biomedical research community. Conversely, institutions or Hospital Trusts that better facilitate links between cross-disciplinary collaborators would be expected to improve these outputs as compared with environments with more pronounced research silos. While our survey was conducted in the Oxford context, we suspect these trends are more universal

There are many potential reasons an individual academic or clinician may struggle to identify a collaborator. Websites are often out-of-date or too high-level. Perhaps there is an issue of jargon around specific techniques and, for example, a clinician does not know a sufficiently specific term for the type of analytical expertise they are seeking in an academic. The language used for the same concepts may also differ between different specialities, making comparing notes difficult. Also probable is that ‘cold’ contacting potential collaborators is met with a limited response rate. Indeed, of the survey respondents who had previously participated in an academic–clinician collaboration, over 60% reported they had met the collaborator through an introduction by a colleague. The power of social/professional networks in enabling new collaborations therefore continues to appear – unsurprisingly – profound. This may render initiating new cross-disciplinary collaborations disproportionately difficult for early career researchers or other historically disenfranchised groups. The reliance on interpersonal introductions and networking poses potential ethical issues if it propagates a lack of diversity in research teams and reduction of inclusion of thought.

When lab-developed concepts cannot be moved from bench to bedside, this leads to reduced research output, reduced positive impact on patients, and wasted potential in the expertise of the biomedical research community.

Based on our survey results, the most successful strategy to enhancing successful collaborations is likely to be a multipronged approach, embedding opportunities to facilitate introductions within frameworks that integrate academic and healthcare systems. Such opportunities could include in-person opportunities to engage, as well as online platforms that allow clinicians and academics to easily search for each other. For the latter, careful planning is required to ensure details remain up-to-date for any opt-in system (the preference of our survey respondents, as opposed to an automated enrolment approach). Our own preliminary efforts in this area also highlighted how difficult it can be to give virtual access to platforms across different University and Trust systems; strong institutional support will be central to overcoming such digital infrastructure hurdles.

Efforts to address the other major barriers to academic–clinician collaboration – such as funding – may be equally thorny; indeed costs for even small pilot studies are often substantial. Furthermore, while our survey did not garner specifics of the funding concerns, anecdotally we hear from clinicians and clinician scientists that this is often related to needing to ‘buy time’ due to a lack of dedicated research hours. Here again, institutional support may be able to play a role in supporting managers and their teams to participate in research activities, perhaps through honorary contracts or other similar mechanisms. 

Our survey does not represent a formal academic study, but rather a more informal starting point for a discussion about facilitating collaborations in the biomedical research environment. This is critical to support translational research and also the career development of staff with diverse backgrounds. Other institutions may benefit from conducting such surveys to understand the extent of the problem in their area in order to design bespoke solutions.

Dr Carolyn Nielsen, Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
Dr Amy Cross, Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences, University of Oxford
Dr Francesca Aroldi, Department of Oncology, University of Oxford
Dr Jasleen K Jolly, Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University  of Oxford; Vision and Eye Research Institute, Anglia Ruskin University