21 June 2022

Sheffield student wins national award for innovative palliative care research

A medical student from the University of Sheffield has won a national award for her research into understanding the experiences and needs of palliative care patients.

Medical student Isabel Leach
Medical Student Isabel Leach
  • University of Sheffield medical student, Isabel Leach, has been awarded the national George Lewith Prize from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) School for Primary Care Research
  • Isabel’s innovative research highlights the needs of palliative care patients and makes recommendations to help improve their healthcare
  • Findings of the study show there are barriers in understanding the term palliative care and prognosis uncertainty and that compassionate and open communication is key for patients and their carers

A medical student from the University of Sheffield has won a national award for her research into understanding the experiences and needs of palliative care patients and the impact on their healthcare.

Isabel Leach, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Sheffield, was awarded the George Lewith Prize by the National Institute for Health and Care Research School for Primary Care Research (NIHR SPCR). The annual, national prize was created in memory of internationally-renowned practitioner, researcher and lecturer in complementary and integrative medicine, Professor George Lewith. 

During her research, Isabel interviewed patients and their carers and identified there are often barriers in understanding the term 'palliative care' and prognosis uncertainty. She found that identifying palliative care needs is a highly individual experience where compassionate and open communication is key. The research also showed that implications of identification for future healthcare vary and that proactive primary care is integral to meaningful identification.

Isabel Leach, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Oncology and Metabolism, said: “The purpose of my research was to understand the experiences of patients in the identification of their palliative care needs and the impact this has had on their future healthcare. 

“Primary healthcare teams deliver the majority of palliative and end-of-life care in the community and there is growing interest in the use of palliative care identification tools in primary care to identify patients with unmet palliative care needs. 

“However, there is no previous research into the experiences and perspectives of patients about being identified as needing palliative care; this study addresses that gap.

“Although palliative care is a sensitive and sometimes upsetting topic to talk about, I really enjoyed conducting interviews and recognised the great privilege it is to listen to and learn from people's stories.”

Recommendations from Isabel’s research include: 

  • Consistent education about the meaning and benefits of palliative care should be prioritised for members of the public and healthcare professionals alike. 
  • Palliative identification tools should lead to meaningful conversations with patients about their needs, rather than just a palliative 'label' on patient records.
  • Improved integration of healthcare services is needed to encourage healthcare professionals to work together to support patients and their families more effectively following identification of palliative care needs. 

Dr Sarah Mitchell, one of Isabel’s supervisors from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Oncology and Metabolism, said: “It is fantastic to see Isabel's work recognised with this national NIHR award, and a first for Sheffield. It has been a privilege to supervise Isabel. She has shown clear commitment, motivation and a desire to improve palliative care through patient-centered research. 

“Isabel's research has provided new insights and valuable understanding into the experience of patients and carers of the identification of palliative care needs and the impact on their future healthcare, beneficial or not. 

“The work will inform improvements of identification, delivery and training in palliative care in primary care. Isabel has plans to develop patient information, information resources for students  already had the opportunity to highlight the importance and relevance of her work in national research and policy (NHS England) meetings.

Isabel is set to present her research at the Society for Academic Primary Care Annual Scientific Meeting 4-6 July 2022 and is sharing her findings at the University of Sheffield Medical School Annual Research Meeting on 13-14 June 2022.

In August, she will return to studying medicine for her final two years of training but she hopes to continue to be involved in patient-centred research in primary care and would like to pursue a career as an academic GP when she graduates. 

I am passionate about patient-centred research and hope that this project will lead to improvements in patient care. 

Isabel Leach

University of Sheffield, Medical Student

Isabel added: “I am delighted to have been awarded the George Lewith Prize for my research investigating the views and experiences of patients in the identification of their palliative care needs. 

“It is an honour to be recognised for my work by the NIHR School for Primary Care Research; knowing that my research has been recognised nationally is really exciting. 

“I'd like to thank all my supervisors, in particular Dr Sarah Mitchell who has been really supportive throughout.”


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