A post by Katrina Bannigan. A superfan is the enthusiastic fan who queues for tickets days in advance, follows the object of their passion tirelessly and continues their support through good times and bad. Superfans are quite extreme because of their level of dedication. You may find it strange that I am suggesting super fandom as an approach to facilitating change within a professional context but I genuinely believe it is going to take the dedication of the superfan to pave the way to the clinical academic role becoming an accepted and established career pathway within the Allied Health Professions (AHPs).
Being a clinical academic, i.e. an allied health professional who combines working in practice with being a researcher, is an aspiration for a career pathway in the AHPs. Few would argue against the need for the clinical academic role. We know we need to bring research closer to the bedside—or, in the case of AHPs, the playground, prison, clinic or ambulance—to reduce the gap between research and implementation. We recognise that having innovators at the heart of practice, leading high quality innovation, drives high quality care. We like the idea of this but part of why achieving our aspiration is proving so hard is because the idea of a clinical academic is neither accepted or established in reality in the AHPs.
The gap between clinical practice and academia seems bigger than ever. I have been working as an allied health professional for over 25 years. Being a clinical academic was not viable option at the start of my career. I have mainly worked in higher education and I have been subject to comments such as ‘If you cannot do, you teach, and if you cannot teach, you research’. Whilst I do not think anyone would make overt comments like this anymore an inherent anti-intellectualism still exists. I have witnessed (clinical) academics being dismissed, or excluded, within meetings because of the academic aspect to their role. An academic approach is not valued, or is indulged as a quaint interest, and is viewed not fitting within the reality of the practice setting. It’s as if the two different cultures of practice and academia cannot easily co-exist. For the trailblazers, the day to day lived experience of this is their work not being taken seriously. This is demoralising.
In-roads have been made towards establishing clinical academic careers but it is mainly at the education stage, e.g. clinical doctoral fellowships are proliferating. Beyond achieving a PhD, carving out a career where practice and research are integrated is less easy. Some tenacious individuals are making headway but this is a long way from there being an established career pathway. Within health and social care teams, departments, services and organisations rarely have the capacity to accommodate the research aspect of the role and universities rarely have the links or infrastructure to facilitate seamless working across higher education institutions and practice. The lack of impetus to change the processes and infrastructure to make clinical academic posts a reality underscores the lack of acceptance that research needs to be at the heart of practice. For an individual trying to work as a clinical academic this is a lonely place to be—there are few role models and you are not in anyone’s gang—and this is why these people need superfans.
What I am suggesting is we need people to show the dedication of the superfan to bringing about the clinical academic role. This may mean making the long-term commitment to supporting an individual with becoming a clinical academic. This goes beyond mentoring; it is about supporting an individual over time with the successes, disappointments, ensuring they are never lonely because they are always in your gang wherever they work. It recognises that nothing is handed to a clinical academic on a plate; they have to fight every step of the way. With the challenges already outlined, the people brave enough to step into the unknown of a clinical academic career need steadfast nurture and support. As well as supporting them with highs and lows, it also involves helping them to navigate two cultures, and putting yourself on the line to challenge the processes and procedures current blocking the integration of clinical academics into practice. This is the level of dedication needed to ensure we do not lose the trailblazers before they make it. The level of change required is to much to ask individuals themselves.
As has been suggested in a previous post, as well as the steadfast, long-term support of an individual or individuals, we need those with the power in practice and academia to stimulate, enact and support the change. Academics, researchers, clinical leaders, and operational managers need to identify opportunities and then to pull together and to do the hard graft needed to put the processes and infrastructure in place to enable the clinical academic role to truly exist. Opportunities are not always dressed as opportunities, which means this is not a one-off activity but involves constant horizon scanning looking for the opportunities and then doing the graft needed make these opportunities happen. This hard graft requires the enthusiasm and dedication of the superfan. It requires people to spot the opportunities, sell the ideas to others and then bring the relevant people and resources together to make them happen. Until individuals are assiduously supported, and the work is done to ensure the infrastructure and processes are enacted, becoming a clinical academic will feel like uphill struggle rather than a viable career option.