Clinical Research Liaison Officer awarded inaugural SRI travel grant

Melinda Millard, Clinical Research Liaison Officer with the Victorian Spinal Cord Service, Austin Health, was the recipient of SRI's 2016 travel grant. We talked to Melinda on her return from the International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS) meeting in Vienna.*

You have recently returned from Vienna, where you attended the 2016 meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society (assisted by an SRI travel grant). What were the highlights of this event for you? 

Prior to the CRLO position I had been nursing for over 20 years – the majority of those in critical care area.  ISCoS was my first ever International Conference, so that alone was exciting.

The ‘Cannabis in SCI Care’ session I found interesting as this seems to be an area that is getting momentum around the world. This treatment approach has had an immense impact in terms of helping to manage neuropathic pain for people living with spinal cord injury (SCI). They are also finding it also helps with spasm, which for some can be quite debilitating.

The conference was also a great opportunity to network and inform people around the world of the unique CRLO role we have at the Victorian Spinal Cord Service (VSCS). There was a lot of interest in the role, with some places keen to create a similar role as they could see the value.

Vienna is a delightful city which was a pleasure to experience. The venue where the conference was held was extraordinary and so I did spend a bit of time looking at the beautiful architecture while listening to new and innovative developments in the SCI field.

As a Clinical Research Liaison Officer, you have gained vast experience in the spinal research sector. What is the most challenging aspect of spinal cord injury research? 

Like a lot of research – but in particular Investigator Initiated projects (common in the spinal field) – recruitment and retention is the greatest challenge. In the acute phase, research is an aspect of the patients’ hospital stay that they have complete control of and so it is something the patients have the power to say no to. That is why the CRLO role is so effective in this population: patients see the role as independent of the research, it provides a buffer between them and the researchers, thereby the patients see Janette and I as acting as their advocate.

Another challenge is bridging the gap between clinical and research. Although research has been a big part of the VSCS for a number of years, ongoing work is still required to ensure clinicians are not frustrated, feeling powerless or seeing research as pointless. As there certainly is an expectation that research knowledge will be translated to the beside. This latter point is something I feel we need to work on more.

What do you find inspiring about working in this field?

Altruism of the patients: when they have had a catastrophic event that will change their lives forever, they still manage to see the importance of helping someone in the future who has a SCI and so consent to doing research. Some may even consent to doing multiple studies.

At the ISCoS meeting, you took part in a workshop on international collaborations in spinal research. What did you gain from the workshop?

I was aware the SRI were working towards facilitating international collaboration in SCI research but I did learn the SRI were developing a central Hub to help facilitate this. I’m keen to see how that transpires as there is a definite need for international collaboration in this area.  

One speaker discussed recruitment facilitation ideas via on other research areas that have a small patient population, such as Multiple Sclerosis. One of these was a Trial Finder listing all the current trials, participant commitment and eligibility requirements of each trial. This allows those people living in the community (not inpatients) to have a central point of call to get research information and that they can choose to participate in.

Many people across the world are on board with the idea of international collaboration so I feel once a centralized Hub is established it should gain some momentum and be a useful tool. That said, it will need ongoing management, assessment and development.

Interestingly, one delegate was working in Nepal and said there was enough patients but little research infrastructure in the country to help them be involved, so this is something that could be further explored.

How important is international collaboration to spinal cord injury research?

Vital. It is important to assist with recruitment numbers to ensure the research being done is robust. It avoids doubling up on the same research but on other sides of the world.

*An edited extra of this interview was published in the SRI's News & Events Update and the SRI INSCITE newsletter.