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Train of Thought...
March 2005 - Is research for you?

The 2005 ASM is just around the corner and I am wondering why I persist in preparing presentations for the meeting. Every year we seem to start earlier but always run out of time. I guess this is because much of the time we have to do the work, the research, the analysis and the preparation, is "stolen" time - time used when patients don't turn up, time released when I step into the lab to free someone else to progress their research work. Sadly very few of us are able to schedule research time in our normal days. A culture change among our clinical directors is called for here.

Research cannot be hurried but a clear vision and an awareness of progress allow short periods of time to be used efficiently and effectively. Each laboratory meeting should include discussion of any research going on or being planned. It would be so much easier to drop research activities - but we, and respiratory science, would all be a lot poorer if we took that approach. As with most things in life though, the reward is proportional to the effort.

Several times recently I have been involved in discussions about research along the lines that "you have to have a PhD to do research", "research is beyond our ability", "we don't have the time" etc. These comments, I hasten to add, were not restricted to pulmonary function scientists.

When we think of research the image that often first comes to mind is one of people in white coats sitting at benches covered with high tech equipment. We think too of groundbreaking findings - new drugs, new technologies. The reality is that these images represent the tip of the iceberg and few of them would exist if it were not for basic or applied research going on in the background, virtually unnoticed.

If you were to consult the dictionary you would find research defined as:

  1. the systematic investigation into and study of materials, sources, etc., in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.
  2. an endeavour to discover new or collate old facts etc. by the scientific study of a subject or by a course of critical investigation.

There is nothing in these two definitions that says research requires high tech equipment, that you have to have a PhD to do it or, for that matter, wear a white coat. The three critical words in those definitions are systematic, scientific and critical. Research is about challenging the status quo, about asking questions about how and why we do what we do. It is about being aware of limitations, endeavouring to overcome those limitations and applying new findings.

Certainly there are those in the Society who participate in academic research into the fundamental principles behind the physiology we study and the methods we use. This is very important work that we all benefit from, and yes it requires a highly intelligent mind to understand it let alone devise research projects to further our understanding of the subject. These people are, however, the minority. This approach fits with the first definition given above and is the approach most likely to provide the groundbreaking findings.

Most of the work presented at our ASM, however, is more practical - nebuliser choices, guideline development etc. This work fits with the second definition and is unlikely to provide groundbreaking findings but is, nevertheless, no less important. It may in fact be even more important from the patient's perspective. The number and quality of presentations has grown over the years and clearly demonstrates that most ANZSRS members have an interest in research.

We all have the responsibility to and in fact do practice continuous quality improvement and that requires us to be critical of our work practices, to ensure we provide the best quality data and safest testing practices that we can. We are all expected to document any quality initiatives we implement. Let's think about this for a moment. We identify a problem; we figure out a solution; we test the solution; we document the change and implement it. This looks very much like research and development to me. Research is as much a state of mind, an attitude, as it is an academic pursuit.

Research can be as complicated, sophisticated and difficult as we wish to make it. To those who believe they have neither the time nor the ability I urge you to stop and think for a moment. Until you have tried, how can you know it is beyond your capability? Until you have tried to assign time or priority to a research project how do you know you cannot do so? Until you have put a presentation together how can you know the reward that comes from it? The best research projects comprise simple questions that have clear answers.

75% of members who have returned authorisation forms to publish their details on the web-site have indicated they would like to do collaborative research. The ASM provides an opportunity to consider questions, to seek guidance, to develop mentoring relationships, in short to network. It is the ideal environment in which to forge those links so seize the opportunity to ask questions and test the water. Collaboration is the best possible way to learn so seek opportunities. Nobody will suggest research is easy, but I know of no senior members of the Society who would not be only too happy to discuss ideas and guide you on your way. That, after all, is why we belong to a Society.

Why do I persist with research activity? Because the reward of seeing a project brought to completion, of seeing my and my colleagues' skill base being enhanced, and our patients reaping benefits from improvements in our practice far outweigh the added workload. Beyond that, of course, is the simple thrill of the chase.

Come on in and give it a go. The water's great.

Kevin

March, 2005

kevin.gain@health.wa.gov.au

 

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