This article was published in the 2018 quarter 1 issue of PPI Pulse, the Patient and Public Involvement newsletter of the NIHR CLAHRC Oxford and the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford and also on the website of the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences on 28th February 2018
Georgia Richards originally trained in Biomedical Science at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, where she helped support herself by working in a Pharmacy. She went on to do an Honours degree in Pharmacology – a yearlong independent research project – examining patients with chronic low back pain.Despite originally thinking that she might take the path into medicine, Georgia succumbed the siren call of research, eventually applying to be a DPhil student in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences’ Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.
As part of her DPhil, Georgia’s research interests include the management of chronic non-cancer pain, evidence surrounding polypharmacy (taking multiple drugs for multiple conditions, often in untested combinations) and methods to reduce the over treatment and inappropriate use of pain medications, particularly opioid analgesics.
Georgia is funded by grants from the Rotary Foundation, the NIHR School for Primary Care Research (SPCR) and the Naji Foundation.
How have you found the move to the UK and Oxford?
I’m really enjoying it! Struggling with the weather, but that’s OK. I think Oxford’s a very special place. For me, being Australian, it’s unique to live somewhere with such a long and inspiring history. You won’t find buildings this old in Australia! So, I’m loving it – missing my family, but not homesick – I’d like to stick around for a few more years after the DPhil before I go back home.
What was it that changed your mind from medicine to research and brought you to Oxford?
For me, it was a major decision. But I now feel very comfortable in research and I don’t believe I’ll go back to do medicine. During my Honours research, I was observing patients with chronic low back pain who were prescribed opioids to manage their pain. This was where I got my first taste for research. I saw many patients suffering from chronic pain and realised their treatments weren’t that effective. I turned to the evidence and found it wasn’t that great either, nor was it being applied in clinical practice.
This is where my interest in evidence-based medicine started and why I looked at Oxford University and the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine. From an epidemiology or public health perspective, good quality research has the potential to make a big impact – you can improve or change clinical practice to help patients at a local or global level. Although I’m certainly not suggesting that doctors don’t have a huge impact on patients’ lives! So, I’m extremely happy to be here and have the opportunity to contribute to impactful research. However, my journey to Oxford was very difficult!
How was the journey difficult?
Well, mostly from a funding perspective – getting funding as an international student was challenging. I applied for many scholarships and was unsuccessful in most of them. However, this is where the Rotary Foundation comes in. My grandad, who was a Rotarian before I was born, has friends in Rotary and suggested I pitch my research to them. “I’m sure they’d love it!” He said. The journey was not quite as simple as that, but I looked into the funding options available with Rotary, and was successful in obtaining one of the ‘Rotary Global Grants’ from District 9710 in Canberra, Australia.
The success of the Rotary scholarship opened the door to other scholarships which have now fully funded my fees and university expenses – but if it wasn’t for Rotary, I may not be here!
Where on that journey did you first come across PPI?
PPI definitely is a thing in Australia, apparently there are a few groups in Sydney doing some great work. But, unfortunately, in the research groups I’ve worked in and the research at university, we didn’t talk about or participate in PPI. For me, the first time I came across PPI was when I arrived in Oxford and met Lynne Maddocks [CLAHRC PPI co-ordinator] at the department’s orientation day for DPhil students. I then organised to catch up one-on-one with Lynne to talk through how and when I could use PPI in my DPhil.
The study I did in my Honours degree worked closely with patients. Though, I didn’t talk to them prior to starting the study. Many of the discussions I had with patients during the study would have been beneficial before starting the research. In the field of chronic pain, I believe speaking with patients is a particularly important aspect. What patients want and feel isn’t quite reflected in previous studies.
Can you tell me a bit about some of the work you’re doing at the moment, that you have involved or plan to involve PPI in?
At the moment, I’m in the very early phase of my DPhil, so I haven’t specifically used PPI yet, it’s more planning where PPI will fit in – in the future, PPI will definitely be an important part of my work! That being said, I’ve done some talks at Rotary clubs in Canberra (Australia) and here in Oxford – my host club is the Rotary Club of Faringdon. I presented what I plan to do in my DPhil and got some great questions, they all put their hands up! That, in itself, was a valuable experience, and a less formal version of PPI in terms of explaining the research and the Rotarians providing thoughtful feedback on it.
Were there any recurring themes from these talks or that kept coming up?
Definitely. A lot of them asked about what treatments were available for low back pain and were shocked that good treatments just aren’t there yet. People also asked about the risk of addiction to pain killers, which I think may be motivated by what’s been broadcast in the news, particularly surrounding the “war on drugs” in the US.
I did have to deflect a few clinical questions and say, “Sorry, as I’m not a clinician that’s not something I can advise you about.”
Outside of work, what kind of things do you tend to get up to?
I’ve always loved running. I started that in high school when I was really stressed with exams. That was my release, and I’ve kept that up through University to now. Though I haven’t had much experience running in the rain before, so the mornings I wake up and see it raining, that’s a bit challenging…
Back at home a best friend and I would plan a run every year somewhere in Australia we had not been before, to have something to work towards while seeing a different part of Australia. So, my plan is to do that while I’m here in the UK, and in other parts of Europe too. I’m booked into one in London for February, but am yet to get a plan together for others. I always try to find ways to mix work, running and travel as much as I can.
Do you come from a sciencey or medical family?
A lot of people I’ve met in the health or science realm have a family history of medicine or science. But not me! My mum’s in real estate and dad was in finance, now he’s in sales. So they think I’m mad doing a DPhil, but that’s OK. My older brother, Kirk, is a pharmacist, and it was his pharmacy that I worked in as a student where I was first exposed to the prescription of opioids, so that’s one link.
And my baby sister, Isabella, – well she’s not really a baby anymore, as she’s now at university – studying civil engineering and commerce. In my family and Australia more broadly, you go to university to study a particular degree which becomes your profession or gives you a job. So, if you study law, you’re a lawyer. Or if you study pharmacy, then you’re a pharmacist. So, when it came to my choice of science, they were like, “Science? What can you do with that? How’re you going to get a job?” They hopefully now know what a PhD is, and that it’s the training I need for the next phase of my career. You can end up anywhere in science, and we must encourage more girls to give it a go! Scientific skills are very transferable, there is so much you can do!