University researchers conducting research across different National Health Service organisations should see red tape cut substantially after it was announced that a single new system for dealing with "pre-engagement checks" would be rolled out across the UK, writes Zoë Corbyn.
In the past, researchers looking to undertake studies with NHS patients were required to undergo separate checks - including criminal, medical and occupational health reviews - for each of the hospitals or clinics they wanted to work with, leading to a situation where it could take months to get the necessary permissions to go ahead with any research.
The new streamlined system introduces a so-called researcher passport whereby one set of checks, documented by the university, is supplied to all organisations, reducing duplication and saving time, money and effort.
"In some ways it seems terribly simple to do, but each university and hospital operates independently so it is very fragmented. Over time, things have got more and more divergent and it has become a complete minefield," said Janet Messer, deputy director of the NHS Research and Development Forum, the professional network for research and development managers in the NHS.
Following a successful pilot in Manchester, the system is being rolled out incrementally, with plans for it to be fully in place by this time next year. "I hope that in the future we will see the system working very efficiently, where the time to get permissions - up to six months at the moment - could be down to less than four weeks," Dr Messer added.
Michael Rees, chairman of the British Medical Association's Medical Academic Staff Committee, welcomed the move as an "important initiative" but said the difficulty would be in getting NHS organisations to take up the idea. "The critical step is the uptake of the passport," he said.
He added that the Clinical Research Collaboration - the partnership of organisations working in clinical research that has taken the lead on developing the system - and other bodies "need to make sure it is taken up by the hospitals".
The system also provides advice on the types of checks required in order to address the issue of different NHS organisations' differing requirements.
"One NHS organisation might say three checks and another might say ten for the same piece of research. It is terribly frustrating for a researcher," said Dr Messer. "There are some places where more checks need to be done and others where there is overkill. It is hoped this new system will resolve inconsistencies."
Health departments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are to implement the system in collaboration with NHS organisations and universities.
A resource pack on the new system is available on the National Institute for Health Research website at www.nihr.ac.uk .