If our understanding of medicine was perfect, there would be no need for research. If no new diseases, like Ebola or Zika, emerged, we could dispense with the need for discovery. If we could prevent or cure all cancers, all infections, all diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and dementia we could consign science to the history books. But everyone knows that this is a dream as yet unfulfilled.

The simple fact is, that although we have come a very long way in improving healthcare, there is still much to be done and understood, and there always will be. Diseases change, the characteristics and susceptibilities of the population alter and even treatments that once could be relied upon, no longer work.

For healthcare to be better tomorrow, or even just as good as it is today, we need to keep moving forward and I believe the engine that powers that momentum is clinical research — the process of finding new knowledge and understanding about health and disease that involves people.

Research involving people is thus at the very heart of modern medicine. For this to happen, however, we continually need new, committed researchers and new willing research participants. There are many misconceptions about how modern clinical research is conducted and any serious attempt to grow and develop this aspect of medicine, and to allow it to achieve its full potential must address these through the provision of high quality and accessible educational and training opportunities.

Those in healthcare or contemplating such a career need to be informed and inspired to take part in research, while those we hope will volunteer to take part in research studies need to be fully research aware and to understand the vital importance of their role and how they fit in to the research process.

Thus, the challenge is one of communication and education, and it is a challenge on a grand scale. While there have been many attempts to address this issue most are relatively small and limited, and they are largely designed to deal with local concerns and to take advantage of statutory training needs.

In order to explore new educational possibilities in this area, a team at the National Institute for Health Research Clinical Research Network (NIHR-CRN) decided to tackle this challenge by harnessing the power of modern educational technology to offer a Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. The aim of this enterprise was to educate and inform the public, patients and healthcare professionals about clinical research.


The result, ‘Improving Healthcare through Clinical Research’ is a four week online course offered via the NIHR-CRN and their host organisation the University of Leeds on the FutureLearn platform. It consists of short tailor-made videos and animations, structured and directed readings and a series of external links. The MOOC also contains short self-assessment exercises and an end of course test for those interested in gaining evidence of their satisfactory completion of the course. But, a large part of the educational value in the course comes from the discussion boards where learners are encouraged to post questions and comments and to interact and learn from each other. The boards are moderated throughout the four weeks of the course by the presenters and any specific questions on course content are answered.

As I reflect on my involvement with the MOOC, a number of themes emerge.  Most education is local and contained — 10 people in a tutorial group, 30 in a classroom, 200 in a lecture theatre. When we step on to a global platform to deliver education in this or in any field a number of new opportunities present themselves for the first time, along with equally new challenges. We have the opportunity to speak to a diverse and truly international audience and to influence their thinking about clinical research. But we also have a responsibility especially when talking directly to patients — dealing with their fears, prejudices, misunderstandings and in some cases managing their overriding search for hope.  The international community of learners from a wide range of backgrounds also adds a special dimension to this kind of education for we are all able to learn from those living and working in completely different healthcare landscapes.

It is a privilege to be part of something on such a global scale. It is humbling to hear first hand the stories of those involved in research, either as an investigator or as a participant. And, it is a remarkable medium for education because the MOOC has allowed me to teach more people in a few weeks than I have taught in a lifetime in academia.

Indeed, we are about to deliver this course for the fourth time, starting on May 22, 2017, and over these runs we have reached around 20,000 learners from more than 80 countries. Some are interested members of the public, some are patients, some former research participants, some school children and students and some research professionals already working in healthcare.

If you would like to join that community, why not sign up to take part at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/clinical-research — it’s free and the feedback so far has been excellent.



© Allan Gaw 2017


Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician May 2016.

My other books currently available on kindle:

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