Dr Catherine Walshe, new co-director at IOELC

Categories: Leadership.

For the next year, Dr Walshe will be sharing leadership responsibilities with Professor Sheila Payne, as Prof Payne prepares to devote her time to her duties as president of the European Association of Palliative Care. ehospice caught up with Dr Walshe as she spoke about her new post, her admiration for the team at the Observatory and plans for future research and teaching.

Dr Walshe trained as a nurse and worked clinically in cancer, palliative care and HIV/AIDS care for 15 years. She worked as a district nurse, community Macmillan nurse and then as Macmillan palliative care service coordinator, before entering academia. On maternity leave, and faced with a choice between months off work or the demanding task of studying further while juggling three children and a new baby, Dr Walshe chose the latter and was funded by the NIHR to do a PhD in issues related to community palliative care. 

“I’ve always been interested in research,” said Dr Walshe, “While I was working clinically, I was an avid consumer of research. I had always thought about doing a PhD, but the time was never right. When we moved up to Manchester I needed to change jobs, so I decided that this would be an ideal time to do my PhD.”

Looking back on her varied career to date, Dr Walshe identifies palliative care as the thread that pulls it all together: She said: “If you think of my career in terms of a strand, it has been palliative care that has been a constant throughout.”

According to Dr Walshe, entering a fully formed and extremely capable team has been crucial to her induction into the new role of director. She said: “I think in some ways I’m extraordinarily lucky: I’m starting to work with a strong team of educationalists and researchers who have a wide portfolio of research interests.

“I think one of my main tasks will be getting to know the people with whom I’m working, and particularly getting to know my clinical colleagues. I’m starting from a position of strength, given the fantastic work that goes on here.”

Asked what the coming year will bring for the Observatory in terms of research priorities, Dr Walshe cites home care and caring for people as close to home as possible, caring for people with diseases other than cancer, and the dementia and frailty agenda as important issues. 

Dr Walshe noted that home care has been a policy imperative in the UK for some time, and recognised the need for future research. She said: “We don’t have a full understanding of how to achieve (good home care). We don’t understand how best to provide care, how to care for people at home, how to work within the multidisciplinary team, or what the outcomes are of this kind of care. There is, as far as I’m aware, for example no research on outcomes of district nursing end of life care. The whole area of home care is important for palliative care and one that the Observatory can contribute to because of our expertise.”

Sharing learning with colleagues in other countries is very important, said Dr Walshe, especially when it comes to caring for patients with a non-cancer diagnosis. She notes: “Another priority is how to respond to the challenge of caring for people who don’t have cancer. Particularly in the UK where we have grown palliative care services around people who have cancer, this is an area where I think we can learn from our colleagues in other countries, where they have been doing this for a long time.”

“Of course at the Observatory, it’s not just about research,” said Dr Walshe. “We run a very successful ‘PhD in Palliative Care’ programme which we’re hoping to grow over the coming years. The course is primarily distributed learning (distance learning) so many of the students who access this course are international, sharing their interest in palliative care and learning together.” 

Speaking about the work being done in palliative care internationally, Dr Walshe said that researchers are: “looking at different topics of interest, like: how do people provide care in different cultures and contexts? How can we use this to improve the care we provide in the UK, as well as how we share what we have learned here with our colleagues internationally?”

Considering the International Observatory’s role in end of life care in the future, Dr Walshe emphasises the complementing work paths of research and education. She said: “Our role will continue to be two-pronged, comprising both research and education, with a particularly international flavour. Our research portfolio is very much an interesting mix of both UK and international research. As there is a relatively small community of palliative care researchers, we need to be active in bringing these people together and sharing internationally.”

Another thing which Dr Walshe recognises as important is the translation of research into policy and clinical practice nationally and internationally. She said: “One of the key things that I’m very interested in is that much research has international applicability and we often as find it hard to describe our findings in such a way that the international applicability is clear. We really need to think about how we learn from that. A lot of it is about authors finding ways of describing findings which both are true to the culture and context in which we’ve done the research, but also to help others to understand the wider applications of why we’ve done this research and how it can be applied in different contexts.”

“I think that’s one of the real challenges. Its not unique to palliative care, but I think it’s something we are very aware of at the Observatory: How to get research into practice. It is imperative of us as researchers to put more effort into the dissemination of research, getting the research out there.”

She acknowledged the emerging role of social media in changing the way that researchers engage with their audience. Speaking about her work as editor of Palliative Medicine, Dr Walshe said: “I think that social media strategies are so important. We’re sharing experience and expertise and practice with people we’ve never met, and who may not be our usual readership.

“Twitter is a very powerful way of engaging with our readership. It is a direct way of engaging that we’ve never been able to do before. Clearly it’s a different way of disseminating research.”

If you are interested in the work of the International Observatory on End of Life Care, you can follow their Twitter account @IOELC 

Dr Walshe Tweets from @cewalshe, and the official Twitter account of the journal, Palliative Medicine, is @palliativemedj 

More information about current and recent projects, the PhD programme, as well as general information about the International Observatory of End of Life Care can be found online

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