Dr Alison Birtle, our Consultant Oncologist, has been awarded the title of Honorary Clinical Professor at the University of Manchester.
Having been Honorary Clinical Senior Lecturer at the university since 2007, Alison was recently encouraged to apply for a professorship and received confirmation earlier this week from the MAHSC Honorary Clinical Chair in the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health.
This now goes with her title of Honorary Clinical Professor at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) awarded in April this year.
Alison laughs at the thought of being called professor professor, and shows me her scrubs that have been embroidered by a colleague's mum.
For this to be done by her is a mark of how much she is respected and valued by both patients and colleagues alike within the Rosemere Cancer Centre at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals.
“It’s a family you know here at Rosemere”, she says proudly.
During her 25 years in oncology, Alison has been a principle investigator on more than 100 clinical studies and trials. She has worked tirelessly to pursue the effective delivery of research to all patients within her specialty across the NHS..
“When I came here, some 17 years ago, we had just three patients on urology trials and within 5 years, we were punching above our weight in terms of research beyond the size of our centre.
Soon we were recruiting more patients for a radiotherapy research trial on prostate cancer than the Christie hospital in Manchester were able to provide”
Why the specialism in research I wonder out loud, intentionally appearing naïve in order to dig deeper into who Alison Birtle really is.
“Research is crucial for patient outcomes and must never be underestimated”, Alison quickly replies, becoming more and more passionate as she speaks.
“I have never had research time in my job plan until recently, but research is the best option for the patient. I am convinced about that.
With research they actually get access to treatment that might be better or the side effects of a treatment might be less. We know that patients in research trials do better and it is not an option but an extra to patients and we owe them that without question.
We must always try and improve their outcome and that’s what I do, that is what I am. It’s part of my DNA I suppose.”
Her current trial 'POUT' (Peri-operative chemotherapy or surveillance in upper tract urothelial cancer) which she leads as Chief Investigator has already changed how urothelial cancer patients are treated.
“It was run from the outset with patients for patients. We designed everything from the patient information to the study design so that patients understood what we were trying to do. By doing this, we achieved great support and established our team quickly”
This is the largest clinical trial conducted worldwide in this type of upper tract urothelial cancer. It is now incorporated in European guidelines and has changed practise worldwide.
Whilst modestly admitting that she has successfully recruited 75 centres across the UK to contribute to the study and its results are now incorporated into European guidelines, I wonder how the research data was received when she presented the initial findings some three years ago.
“I remember the words so well ” she says quickly 'Congratulations Dr Birtle for doing the impossible, for completing a trial that could not be done'"
"Congratulations Dr Birtle for doing the impossible,
for completing a trial that could not be done"
Some accolade, and again she praises her colleagues before acknowledging her own achievements. This teamwork is as much part of her DNA as is her passion to better outcomes for patients.
That desire to acknowledge the team is actually evident throughout the Cancer Centre. From the moment you step through the doors, serenity overtakes you. Yes its busy, yes it’s bustling, but in a reassuringly calm way.
Earnest professionalism exudes from every doorway. Patients being greeted by their first name and looked upon as friends. The intermittent ringing of the cancer bell as someone celebrates success in their personal battle against the disease.
Each unannounced bell ring is greeted by applause from everyone, which to an outsider is emotional to hear. It is also heard more and more often, further testament to the expertise of the Cancer Centre at Lancashire Hospitals.
“Research should never be an optional extra you know “says Alison, suddenly becoming very serious, as the bell is rung for the third time since we have been chatting.
“Every patient should have the opportunity of being considered for a trial appropriate to their medical condition as that is the way we improve the treatment for them and for the patients of the future
I am committed to the value in empowering patients to access research, and to show everyone that research should be part of daily working life, not an added extra.”
In 2018, Dr Birtle was named Researcher of the Year at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) North West Coast Innovation Awards and was selected as one of the NHS’ 70 Stars to celebrate the NHS’ 70th birthday.
In November 2020 she performed as part of the NHS Voices of Care Choir at The Royal Variety Show, with Michael Ball & Captain Sir Tom Moore, having sung on their fund raising single, “You’ll never walk alone”
What was it like performing on that iconic show I ask?
She pauses before replying.
Was it the majestic surroundings or maybe the number of people watching the performance globally, I wonder that has made her appear somewhat wistful?
“Gary Barlow spoke to me” she says, getting rather hot and bothered as she remembers the meeting.
She quickly recovers and carries on
“I have been in a unique position really for an Oncologist. I shielded for 4 months and never stopped or missed any of my clinics. None of us stopped throughout the Pandemic.
I did WhatsApp ward rounds and everything other than face to face meetings whilst supporting my big brother in Australia who was suffering from lung cancer and trying to get him home.
I still do one full video clinic a week. I have done so many reviews from camper vans and this morning I did one on a narrowboat. I even had a lovely tour of the narrowboat from the patient who appreciated being able to talk to me, and see me, whilst being in familiar and safe surroundings.
Doing these virtual clinics allows patients to go away between chemotherapy cycles, and you can check up on them so easily. You can see them and make sure they are alright, that they have no toxicities from treatment and they can carry on, as normal a life as possible”.
With collaborative research trials planned with The Christie in Manchester and other projects that appear to involve half of the World, what else can I learn about this focussed passionate and vehement supporter of clinical research into cancer?
“Well” she says,
“I recently learnt something that made me so proud, when I was in the shower.
My son shouted through the door, I want to be a doctor. Honestly, my jaw nearly hit the floor” says Alison conscious of how everyone is listening.
“I was so proud as any mum would be. I asked him when he had made up his mind to follow me in such an incredible rewarding profession. He said, ever since I was four and you gave me a ‘play doctor’s play set’, with a white coat and plastic stethoscope and I came in to the hospital when you were on call”.
She looks at her watch and wants to leave me with one last thought.
“Oncology has always been a multi-disciplined team effort. From the cleaners to the booking clerks, from the nurses to the house keeping. From the research assistants to the radiographers and chemotherapy practitioners. What a privilege it is to working here at Rosemere. It really is a family you know”
With that she waves goodbye and goes to greet her next patient.
Yes you guessed it, with their Christian name and as a friend.