Meet the MIC: Sara Pretorius
Sara joined the NIHR Newcastle In Vitro Diagnostics Co-operative (NIHR Newcastle MIC) as a methodologist in August 2022. Sara’s role at the MIC so far has focused on care pathway analysis and contributing towards the development and evaluation of novel diagnostics.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you joined the MIC?
My background is quite long and varied – I originally studied business and I’ve also toured in a band! My interest in research began when I went back to university and studied for a Masters in Psychology. That led to a few research assistant roles and a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience. Across this time, I got experience of both qualitative and quantitative research. I have always found teaching rewarding which led to a lectureship in Psychology. I then worked for the medical device manufacturer Smith & Nephew in clinical evaluation. I learned about the regulations that medical device manufacturers have to meet in order to place their products onto the market in different territories. I also learned about the clinical evidence that they must generate, or present, to meet those requirements. When I learned about the position at the MIC, it seemed that my cumulative experience was good background for the role.
I wanted to join the MIC because it seemed as though the work was very interesting, varied, and integral to the healthcare system because, of course, we want better diagnostics that can diagnose a condition earlier and more accurately leading to more targeted treatments. So it felt as though the work would be both stimulating and making a positive difference, which has always been quite important to me.
What does your work at the MIC involve and why is it important?
On a day-to-day basis, my work involves methods like care pathway analysis. This is where we map the patient journey through the health system when they may have a particular condition. For example, this might be from when a patient goes to accident and emergency to when they leave hospital. We do this by looking at the clinical guidelines and conducting interviews with people who specialise in diagnosing and treating the condition. Recently, alongside my colleague Tim Hicks, I have also compiled a list of unmet needs in terms of diagnostic processes and tests within care homes by interviewing care home managers, and clinicians who work in this area. For the next phase of this research, we are sharing a survey and asking care home staff, general practitioners, geriatricians, and nurses to put these unmet needs in order of priority to them and to care homes. The project is led by Prof Miles Witham, our ageing theme lead, and funded by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration for the North East and North Cumbria.
The research we do generates evidence that informs the development, adoption and wider use of diagnostic tests or technologies. I think the work is important because even the most impressive and technologically advanced test may struggle to be adopted. There are so many factors that influence this. In terms of the test itself, this includes the design, its usability, patient acceptance, and portability. There is also the culture, the infrastructure of the health service or health system and whether there is an appetite for change. We do the groundwork of assessing these factors. We can let developers know the challenges they might face and help them overcome these barriers. Therefore, our work is important for diagnostic test developers, the healthcare system, and ultimately, for patients.
What do you enjoy the most about this work?
I enjoy the variety and the opportunities to learn. The work that we do spans different clinical areas and types of tests. There are also many training opportunities, as it is important that we learn different methodologies and keep on top of the new ways to evaluate the tests. The world of diagnostics is ever evolving. With the introduction of areas like Artificial Intelligence, we must adapt our methodology and continuously develop our knowledge. I enjoy learning so I enjoy the work!
What have been the challenges with the work?
I suppose managing the demands of different projects as we work on several at once. Therefore, I need to make sure that I allocate enough time and the right time to each project. However, the team are supportive and if I plan and I am structured, then it is relatively easy to handle!
What do you think are the key skills of a methodologist?
1. It helps to have a background in research. At the MIC, it is also good to have a broad understanding and interest in clinical research as a key skill is to understand the work of other researchers and extract data from publications. It is useful to have experience of both quantitative and qualitative methods although there are opportunities to train in different areas.
2. Good communication skills are also important. If you are involved in the qualitative aspects of the research, a big part of the role includes conducting interviews with people. Our project teams also include a range of people such as developers, clinicians, industry representatives, other researchers, and patients.
3. It helps to be adaptable. We work on a variety of projects that cover different clinical areas. We look at different pathways and evaluation methodologies. Therefore, we need to be able to learn things quickly and quite in depth.
Do you have any advice for researchers who are interested in becoming methodologists and working for organisations like the MIC?
If you are specifically interested in diagnostic evaluation, learn and read about the methodologies that we use because it is good to have that knowledge. For example, if you are interested in statistics, there are very specific statistics that we use to examine the diagnostic accuracy of tests. Also, take opportunities and get experience of a variety of different things. Our role is as much about conducting and analysing research as project management and talking to people. Therefore, it is good to have a broad knowledge base. Transferable skills are not irrelevant!
What are the three take home messages you would like people to know from your work?
1. I would like developers to be aware that getting a test adopted is a long process and there are many factors to consider. So, make sure to do the groundwork and ask us for help.
2. Innovation happens when people talk so collaboration is crucial. It is important to get the perspectives from researchers, clinicians, policymakers, industry, and of course, the public. In our line of work, that is very important, because ultimately, the public are the end users.
3. There is more to a story than the first opinion that you hear. Our work teaches us to consider all perspectives because different people can have different opinions on the same issue, depending on their background, their experience, and their role. This job really reinforces that, and it is something that I try to take generally into life and into all my conversations.
Outside of work, what are you looking forward to during the next few months?
My six-year-old turns seven at the weekend so I am looking forward to the new wave of maturity, rational thinking, obedience, and respectfulness that turning a year older is going to bring! We are also going to Hurghada in Egypt during October half term for some winter sun!