Professor Fiona Thistlethwaite is a Medical Oncology Consultant in the Experimental Cancer Medicine Team (ECMT) at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust. She is Medical Director of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Manchester Clinical Research Facility at The Christie and Director of the Innovate Manchester Advanced Therapy Centre Hub (iMATCH); she is also an Honorary Professor at The University of Manchester.
Tell us more about your roles.
My role is divided into three main aspects. Firstly, I am a clinician seeing patients. For that part of the role, I sit within the early phase trials team at The Christie – which incorporates ECMT and the Advanced Immunotherapy and Cell Therapy team – where I see patients to discuss the possibility of entry into early phase clinical trials; that is my day-to-day job. I’m also Medical Director of our Clinical Research Facility. That’s where we actually treat our patients and I have a role in ensuring safe practice and that we give patients as good an experience as we can when they receive their trial treatment. The third part of my role is as Director of iMATCH, which is part of the UK-wide Advanced Therapy Treatment Centre network. It is a big collaboration looking at how we can scale up activity and improve access for some of our most innovative therapies in the cell and gene therapy field.
What do you enjoy most about working in your sector?
Ultimately, I’m a clinician, and the patient is at the heart of everything I do. The thing that I enjoy most is when we facilitate a patient to have access to an innovative treatment. Obviously when that treatment works it gives everyone such a big boost. Not only is it beneficial to the patient but it is really inspiring for the team to carry on doing what we’re doing. I think in line with that, it’s not just about patients benefitting from our treatment – the role I can play is in ensuring that the patient’s cancer pathway is as positive an experience as it can be. And by that, I mean ensuring that they can access the care that they need, whether that’s on our trial or supporting with a wider holistic approach. Sadly, sometimes we can’t help patients, as many of our patients don’t benefit from the treatment that they’re on, and so we help patients make the plans and decisions that are right for them as they move forward. And whilst that’s not exactly enjoyable, that’s what I see as one of the most rewarding aspects of my job – where we can’t shrink a patient’s cancer, we can at least help support patients through their pathway.
How important is innovation within your sector?
Innovation in its widest setting is actually everything that I do, whether it is on the clinical side bringing new innovative therapies through to the clinic, or on the management and collaboration side, innovation is about building the infrastructure to deliver services at scale and increasing access for patients to those services. The therapies that we use range from some of the most complex – like using a patient’s own cells to fight their cancer – down to some of the small molecule drugs that might be targeting a specific gene change. But the innovation in what I do isn’t just about making sure that we connect with pharmaceutical companies to deliver commercial trials. It’s about how we can connect researchers with commercial partners who are developing new strategies and pull those through into the clinic.
It’s also about how we operate at scale to be able to work through these complex therapies in the NHS. Everyone knows the NHS is incredibly stretched, so we must think outside the box in terms of the innovations and roles that we develop. For example, within our team we have a newly qualified Advanced Clinical Practitioner, who came from a nursing background, but now has done intensive additional training. As a result, she’s going to be working at an investigator level on our clinical trials, seeing patients, making decisions and supporting their journey. So thinking about how we can innovate within the structures that we have is really important.
What professional achievement are you most proud of?
I take pride in each of the sections that I work in – for example, being a chief investigator for an international study, and not just leading within our group, but thinking nationally and even internationally about how we bring that through to our patients in the North West. That’s something that I’m really proud of. On the Clinical Research Facility, I’m proud of the growth that we’ve seen within our unit to be able to treat hundreds of patients a year on early phase cutting edge clinical trials. And then with the iMATCH work, what I’m proud of is actually making Manchester the heart of these really challenging but innovative therapies and gaining significant funding for that to support our patients.
What are the challenges of being a woman working in your sector?
I have to say I don’t think about that an awful lot, but there are challenges. I wear lots of hats and clearly time management becomes an issue, especially with my role outside of the clinic. I have a family, including teenage kids who need me in many other ways. I go home, and I’m a taxi driver, a teacher and a coach, and all the rest of it. Trying to juggle that and not allow work to always encroach into home life, and vice versa, is a real challenge, I think, for everyone, whether they’re a woman or a man.
What advice would you give to other women working in your sector?
Find what works for you and really try and work within that. I like quite a structured approach to things which allows me to be as efficient as possible. When you’re efficient, that allows you to bring innovation into your practice and not always feel like you are fighting fires on a day-to-day basis.
What would you say were the key challenges in your sector that currently prevent innovation moving forward?
I work within a really exciting sector where innovation is moving things forward, but I think everyone’s aware of the constraints within the NHS at the moment. These constraints have probably always been there to a degree, but I have come into sharp focus since COVID. One of the biggest challenges is around staffing recruitment and retention. Being able to provide support for the staff within our teams allows them to flourish within the NHS, and therefore being able to retain them is one of the biggest challenges that I see.
Do you find any particular challenges as a woman working in the North of England?
I think the North of England and Manchester provides an incredibly supportive environment. I see that’s not always the case everywhere. But one of the challenges is that we do live in a country which is still quite London-centric. We have moved, quite rightly, a bit away from virtual meetings post-pandemic, with everyone starting to appreciate the value of face-to-face meetings. Working in the North, the tendency is still there for national meetings to be held in London. That means more travel for those people who are based outside London which can add to the challenge of juggling work and family life.
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